What is up with Minnesota?
The calendar only just turned to 2008, but take a guess at which team is No. 3 in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin? Nope. Illinois? Try again. Purdue? This might take all night.
Believe it or not, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are a step behind the Spartans and Hoosiers in the Big Ten rankings. The 8-1 Gophers are just one win shy of matching last season’s nine wins, and nowhere close to matching the 22 losses.
The non-conference schedule looks like it was complied by Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim – UC Riverside, North Dakota State and Kennesaw State aren’t even low-major powerhouses – but for a team looking to regain some swagger, wins are wins.
Still, Minnesota lost games to Marist, Montana, and Arkansas-Little Rock last season, so having an “easy” nonconference slate hasn’t always worked in the Gophers’ favor.
Two words sum up Minnesota’s fast start: Lawrence McKenzie. In past seasons, McKenzie always has been the Gophers’ most dynamic offensive weapon. The now-senior guard led the team in scoring in 2006-07 with 14.9 ppg, but with a weak supporting cast or poor coaching (depending on how you look at it), the one-man show couldn’t do everything.
New coach Tubby Smith has won 20 games in 14 straight seasons (with Georgia and Kentucky). Making it 15 straight was going to be a challenge, but it seems that–at least in December–Smith has molded the current players into a team he can coach to 20 wins.
McKenzie is the type of point guard Smith likes; the kind that can score and distribute. His scoring is down (10.3 ppg), but his assists are up (3.3 apg game compared to 2.8 last season) and he’s taking care of the ball (1.8 turnovers per game compared to 3.1 last year). It should be noted that McKenzie also is playing eight less minutes per game, as Smith has never shied away from using his bench.
“He’s accepted the role of being a point guard because we really needed him at that spot now,” Smith told the Minnesota Star Tribune. “And so he’s made some sacrifices in his game, and I appreciate him doing that.” While McKenzie’s offensive output has declined, the Gophers have amped up the scoring by more than 16 points per game this season (76.7 from 60.6 last year). Eight Gophers are averaging at least five points per game and 10 Gopheres are registering at least 12 minutes a night. It might not be a permanent recpie for success, but at the moment the mixture is working.
Minnesota shouldn’t be worse than 10-2 entering Big Ten play (only a Dec. 30 game at UNLV–the third game in three nights for Minnesota) should be problematic. The Big Ten season will give the Gophers 18 chances to rack up 10 wins, and that doesn’t include the conference tournament.
Could it happen? With the ball in McKenzie’s hands, don’t bet against it. “I think the transition is going good,” McKenize said. “And I’m glad coach has faith in me to lead the team and put the ball in my hands like that.”