I'll assume you already know all about your Minnesota Gophers basketball squad, but since they head to Puerto Rico for the 2010 version of the Tip-Off and matchups will be coming too fast and furious to do a preview of each game, here's a primer on all the possible teams the Gophers could face.
We'll start with Thursday's opponent, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Names like Orlando "Taco Hawk" Mendez-Valdez, Courtney Lee, Tyrone Brazelton, and A.J. Slaughter might not exactly be known in households across America, but hoop heads should recognize them and know that the Hilltoppers are a perennial contender in the Sun Belt and the program has been built into a mid-major power - 20 wins in 9 of the last 10 seasons and a sweet 16 appearance.
This year is no exception, and the team is led by three senior wings in Sergio Kerusch, Steffphon Pettigrew, and Oklahoma transfer Juan Patillo. Those three are all averaging at least 18 points per game through the Hilltopper's first two games and are scoring over half the team's points, while Patillo has been a beast on the boards, grabbing twelve in each game. WKU is also hitting over 43% of their threes this year, so it's not just going to be an outside game.
Make no mistake, the Gophers can't look past this game to a potential second-round matchup against North Carolina, and they have to contain that trio. If one of them gets off like Clarence Jackson did in the Siena game they're in trouble, and if two of them do it's going to be lights out. Minnesota took care of business against both Wofford and the Saints - both preseason contenders in their mid-major conferences - so they should be able to do it here, but this is going to be a tough matchup.
If they do manage to get through it, it should set up a second-round dogfight against the Tar Heels of North Carolina, who famously underachieved last year, although did start to put it together in the end and were NIT runner-ups. Point guard play was a big weakness for UNC last year, and once again this year their point guards look a bit shaky. Returning starter Larry Drew and freshman Kendall Marshall combined for just four assists against five turnovers in a mere 14 point win over Lipscomb in UNC's only game thus far, and that should be a weakness to exploit for the Gophers. John Henson and Tyler Zeller played well and give the Heels good size to go against the Gophers, but this is another area where Minnesota should have the advantage with Sampson, Mbakwe, and Iverson.
The X-factor will be freshman and pre-season All-American Harrison Barnes, who is essentially being anointed as the greatest player of all-time. Assuming he and Rodney Williams are matched up on each other it's going to be time for Rodney to grow up in a hurry and become the defensive stopper he has the potential to be, or his ass will be shredded faster than if he put it into E. Honda's Slap Chop.
The Heels have a lofty ranking at 8th in the country, but I'm telling you right now it's not deserved - the Gophers are the better team.
If something weird happens the Gophers other potential second-round game would be against the Hofstra Pride. Not a bad team by any stretch, but stuck in the middle of a pretty good Colonial Conference once again this season. They do have a pretty dynamic player in 6-3 senior guard Charles Jenkins who put up 26 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocks in their opening game win over Farmingdale State (of course, the team scored 102, so how much can you really take from that game?) Still, he 21-5-4-2 last year, so he can take over a game, but with Al Nolen on the Gophers side if they do face Hofstra they shouldn't have much trouble.
They could end up facing any of the other four teams depending on how everything shakes out, but assuming they win their first and everything holds according to plan they would likely face either the West Virginia Mountaineers or Vanderbilt Commodores, whether it's in the Championship or the Third Place Game - hopefully WVU in the championship.
The Mountaineers lost quite a bit from last year's Final Four team but are still expected to be an NCAA Tournament team based on the talent that is back, and are the team I would make the favorite to win this thing. Not only do they have a potential superstar in Kevin Jones, who was second on the team in scoring and rebounding last year while leading them in FG and 3-pt shooting percentage - and stands 6-8, but they bring back two point guards and enough size to tangle with the Gophers, should they meet. The guards, Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla, will help negate the Gophers tough perimeter defense, while Jones and the other bigs could handle Ralph and the boys in the paint. This would be an absolutely outstanding game. Let's hope it happens.
If not the Mountaineers, the most likely third opponent for the Gophers would be Vandy, a tournament team last year who needs to figure out how to replace their starting point guard and center (who were the top 2 scorers) from last year. It's only one game in, but they look like they're on the right track. New point guard Brad Tinlsey opened the year with a triple-double (albeit against Presbyterian), while new center Festus Ezeli (who the Gophers were recruiting for a while) chipped in with 14 pts and 6 rebounds. And, lest you think they have no talent returning, their two best players are their wings: 6-7 do everything Jeffrey Taylor and 6-4 lights out shooter John Jenkins, both of whom were named to the All-SEC Freshman team last year. Taylor is a possible SEC player of the year, while Jenkins is on basically every list of "best shooter in the NCAA" I've seen. This one wouldn't be easy either.
What would be easy, and disappointing, is if the Gophers lose their first game, end up in the loser's bracket, and play either the Nebraska Cornhuskers or Davidson Wildcats in the consolation game (or worse). No offense to either school, but this would mean something has gone horribly, horribly wrong and Minnesota took a big NCAA resume building opportunity and turned it into a loss to WKU and two meaningless wins, missing out on a couple of shots at big-time teams who will end up with very nice RPIs. Nebraska is going to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 and Davidson hasn't been able to recapture the magic of two years ago and is no longer a dangerous mid-major team, so neither will do anything to build up a resume or give a good idea of how good the Gophers are/can be.
So is it fair to say this game against Western Kentucky is the most important non-conference game of the year? I'd say yes, without question. A win over the Hilltoppers all but guarantees two cracks and getting a big marquee win, and even two losses will at least help the RPI a bit. A loss all but guarantees two games against teams that don't help if you win, but are killers if you lose. So, basically, don't freaking lose this game.