The Minnesota Golden Gopher men's basketball team has exceeded expectations this season. Led by the return of Marcus Carr and an influx of transfers, the Gophers have put together an 11-4 record on the season and a 4-4 mark in the Big Ten.
On the surface, the Gophers' start looks like the typical formula the team has produced under Richard Pitino. The Gophers get off to a hot start by running through their non-conference schedule and hopefully get to .500 to have a shot at an NCAA tournament berth.
But this season's Gophers have a different feel. Minnesota did go through their non-conference schedule undefeated but started the Big Ten season by taking on ranked opponents in their first eight conference games. This stretch also includes a Saint Louis team that was not ranked at the time Minnesota played them, but now is ranked 24th in the AP Poll.
That .500 mark also hasn't been against teams on the fringe of the Top 25. Minnesota has scored upset victories over No. 4 Iowa and No. 7 Michigan, who were undefeated before coming to Williams Arena. With wins over No. 17 Michigan State and No. 25 Ohio State mixed in, there's a reason for optimism when it comes to this team.
Outside of the schedule, the Gophers' play on the court has also been a huge factor. Minnesota has been elite in getting to the basket and finding their way to the free-throw line. While they lead the Big Ten with 25.3 free throw attempts per game, they also rank third in the conference in free throw percentage (.761).
This has helped cover up some of the flaws in Minnesota's game. While they've been able to get to the line, they haven't shot well. The Gophers currently rank last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (.413) and three-point percentage (.299). The shortcoming led to head coach Richard Pitino giving his team an intervention before Saturday's upset win over Michigan.
Despite Pitino's recommendations, the Gophers fall into stretches where they take too many threes and don't attack the paint. Even when that happens, the Gophers can stay in games thanks to their ability on the glass, ranking fourth in total rebounds (38.7) and third in offensive rebounds (11.5) rebounds per game.
While Liam Robbins has led that charge on the inside, Carr is playing like one of the best guards in the Big Ten. The junior is third in the Big Ten with 20.6 points per game and his ability to get his teammates involved also has him second in the conference with 5.5 assists per game.
Even with the standout performances, the Gophers have the depth they haven't had in years. Both Gach has struggled in conference play but is a slasher that can get to the rim. Gabe Kalscheur has also struggled but may find his shot as the schedule lets up. Even players such as Jamal Mashburn Jr., Eric Curry, and Brandon Johnson have carved out significant roles.
In other words, if one player is stopped, the Gophers have several other players that can pick up the slack. That will be key for the Gophers down the stretch as their schedule lightens up.
Even with Wednesday's game against Nebraska postponed, the Gophers will play their next seven games against teams that are currently unranked in the AP Poll. If the Gophers can make a run, they'll have a chance to surge toward the top of the Big Ten standings and make a run for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
With 10 Big Ten teams currently projected to make the tournament in Joe Lunardi's most recent projection, there will be no nights off even with the easier schedule. But if Minnesota can get some victories, they can put themselves in a strong situation come March.