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December 23, 2010, 10:54 AM ET
Can Al Nolen save Minnesota?

by Ken Pomeroy

Minnesota is 10-1 with wins over North Carolina and West Virginia and optimism abounds in The Barn, yet I am concerned about their future. Here’s a graphical view of the Gophers’ chances of winning X number of Big Ten games this season based on adjusted efficiencies through Tuesday’s action.

Assuming Minnesota continues to play the way it has for its first 11 games (which is to say, not great, with the exceptions noted above), it has about a 15 percent chance of winning at least ten Big Ten games. With the two quality wins and plenty of schedule strength involved with playing about 20 games against Big Ten opponents, the Gophers won’t need that many wins to get to the NCAA tournament. But Minnesota’s expectations at this point probably aren’t to just make the field of 68, it’s to win a few games. And winning ten conference games is probably a minimum threshold to get a seed worthy of doing that.

While I’m not going to express supreme confidence in adjusted efficiency to accurately evaluate Minnesota at this point, it’s quite likely this method has a good handle on the collective strength of the other ten teams in the conference. And that is where things get scary to a team that is showing signs of underperforming. In addition to the expected bulk at the top of the conference, teams at the bottom are lurking to vulture wins from anyone that is willing to play a bad game against them. Collectively, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa and Penn State are not nearly as harmless as we might have thought before the season.

In good Gopher news, the team reportedly will get point guard Al Nolen back for tonight’s game against South Dakota State after missing five games with a foot injury. Nolen is notable in numbersy circles for his absurd steal rates. He’s recorded a steal about once in every 20 possessions during his career. But if Minnesota is to avoid a tailspin, it will be the result of improvement in the other ten guys in Tubby Smith’s rotation.

I can say that with a degree of confidence because we have some evidence of what Nolen’s presence means to the team. Last season, Nolen played six Big Ten games before being ruled academically ineligible. With Al Nolen, Minnesota was outscored by 0.5 points per 100 possessions in those six contests. Against the same opponents in Nolen’s absence, the Gophers outscored their opponents by ten points per 100 possessions.

Now, Minnesota is probably not a worse team with Al Nolen on the floor. But whatever boost he brings is easily overwhelmed by the variability in the performance of his teammates over the course of six games, which indicates that Nolen’s influence is that of a role player more than a star. Basically, if Minnesota is going to finish in the top four of the Big Ten, it’s either going to take some luck in close games, or substantial improvement from the team as a whole.

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