Minnesota had reeled off six straight wins entering the start of Big Ten play, but it was Tuesday night's conference opener that revealed the most about the Gophers.
An 80-72 double overtime setback at Illinois suggests that Minnesota won't be the Big Ten pushover many predicted when star forward Trevor Mbakwe suffered a season-ending ACL tear last month.
Ralph Sampson III scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds, raising hopes he may emerge from his early-season doldrums and become the go-to interior scorer Minnesota needs in Mbakwe's absence. Guard Julian Welsch shot erratically but sank some key baskets late in regulation to reach double figures for the fourth time in five games. And while the Gophers missed a chance to close out the victory at the free throw line late in regulation, they also had to rally from a 13-point second-half deficit just to put themselves in that position.
If such a positive spin on a loss to unranked Illinois seems like overkill, consider how low expectations for the Gophers were when Mbakwe went down.
The 6-foot-8 senior was averaging 14.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game and had emerged as the emotional leader for a Gophers team that had been undefeated prior to his injury. His absence coupled with the transfer of 6-foot-11 Colton Iverson (Colorado State) and the knee injury sidelining 6-foot-10 Mo Walker left only Sampson and 7-foot redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason in the frontcourt.
Balanced scoring, solid defense and a soft non-conference schedule helped Minnesota pile up a 12-1 record entering Tuesday's Illinois matchup, but the Gophers' best wins without Mbakwe came at home against Virginia Tech and struggling USC. That's why the game at Champaign served as a litmus test for whether Minnesota can compete on the road in the improved Big Ten.
Minnesota (12-2) will need more than moral victories to reach the NCAA tournament, but that goal doesn't look nearly as unattainable as it did when Mbakwe went down. The combination of the Gophers' success in avoiding bad non-league losses and the strength of the Big Ten means a 9-9 conference record and a conference tournament victory could conceivably land Minnesota on the bubble.
For Minnesota to achieve that, it will need Sampson to continue his upward trajectory, Rodney Williams to find some of the consistency he's lacked throughout his college career and the freshmen and sophomores not to get wide-eyed in close conference games. It's still an uphill battle, but at least now there's reason for hope.