The two prime winter sports at the University of Minnesota are in full swing. Gopher hoops is circling the drain, while the hockey team has been solid, if not excellent at times. But both are now entering critical, but different junctures in their respective seasons.
Men’s basketball seemingly pulled themselves off the mat after the gut punch that was the Mbakwe injury, beating a slew of inferior opponents before conference play began. Big Ten season opened, and not much has gone right since. Close losses to Illinois and Michigan on the road, and a dreadful home turnout against Iowa and Purdue have the Gophers sitting at 0-4. Tonight they face the very real possibility of going 0-5 in conference, playing the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall. Assuming that happens, the next stretch of 7 games becomes hyper-critical for Minnesota, if anything is to be salvaged from the season. My criteria to salvage the season means finding a way to get back onto at least a very volatile Tourney bubble. And in my mind, that means getting to at least 8 wins in conference.
There are a handful of winnable games in this next stretch – @ Penn St, Mich St, Iowa, and Nebraska, and home vs. Northwestern, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The PSU, Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern games become the cliched, must win-type. Then some real magic needs to happen with an upset over Illinois and/or Wisconsin ( I cannot see a win at the Breslin Center happening). Going 5-2 in this part of the schedule, looks pretty unlikely at this point, but it’s what needs to happen if the last 3rd of the Big Ten schedule is to have much meaning at all. Going 3-4 seems more reasonable, but puts the Gophers at 3 and 9 over all, and finishing with 7-8 conference wins would be a tall order, given the remaining schedule.
Men’s hockey has looked sharp for the bulk of the first half, with a few little hiccups along the way, mostly in games outside of the WCHA. This weekend, the #4 Gophers (INCH ranking) they roll up to Grand Forks to play the hated University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux in their palatial Ralph Engelstad Arena. The #17 ranked Sioux will be looking for revenge after getting swept down in the Twin Cities back in early November. UND has also gone 7-1-1 since that weekend sweep and appear to be a team that has put it together now. A split coming out of UND would be a acceptable, and grabbing 3-points a huge boon in setting the tone for a strong second half that could propel Minnesota into the playoffs with a high seed. That’s the juncture here that Gopher hockey faces – Do they slug through the WCHA 2nd half and match their 1st half performance of 11-3, or do they slide back down into the middle of the pack? This weekend will likely go a long way in answering that question.