It's time to take Minnesota seriously as a Big Ten title contender

Because the Big Ten entered November with two Final Four favorites and two other teams ranked in the preseason top 20, Minnesota didn't receive much early national recognition or hype.

Sure, the Gophers returned the core of a team that snuck into the NCAA tournament a year ago, but this was a group that appeared to have too many question marks to crack the top four in this season's formidable Big Ten.

That all changed this weekend when Minnesota upset North Carolina and West Virginia to claim the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship and finish off the most impressive five-game stretch from any team in the nation. Besides the victories over the Tar Heels and Mountaineers, the Gophers also won convincingly over quality mid-majors Western Kentucky, Siena and Wofford.

The biggest key to Minnesota's early start has been the leadership and playmaking of point guard Al Nolen, who missed the final two months of last season as a result of an academic suspension. The absence of suspended wing Devoe Joseph appeared to leave Minnesota without a creator, but Nolen has stepped up his game, averaging 10.2 points and 4.0 assists in five games and scoring 17 against West Virginia in the title game.

Also shining for Minnesota so far has been a frontcourt loaded with unusual size, depth and talent. Six-foot-8 Trevor Mbakwe leads Minnesota with 14.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game after sitting out all of last season with legal troubles, while 7-footer Ralph Sampson III and 6-foot-10 Colton Iverson have taken steps toward shedding their underachiever labels.

And lastly there's senior Blake Hoffarber, the sweet-shooting wing who at last no longer appears reluctant to let the ball fly. Hoffarber attempted 14 threes against North Carolina in the semifinal and made the game-winner from behind the arc against West Virginia, earning all-tournament honors along with Mbakwe.

Since Minnesota's schedule becomes considerably more manageable leading up to the start of Big Ten play, the most intriguing question now about the Gophers is where do they fit into the conference race?

At this point they've accomplished more than any of their peers, though Ohio State looked like a Final Four team against Florida, Illinois took Texas to overtime and Michigan State and Purdue remain undefeated.

Most preseason prognosticators had Minnesota sixth in the Big Ten, behind those four and always-tough Wisconsin. The way the Gophers are playing right now, a top 15 ranking and a top-three finish in the Big Ten look like realistic goals.

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