(I'm writing this today because if they lose to Arkansas State everything goes to shit anyway)
Against nearly everyone's expectations, this year's Gopher team is sitting at 11-1 and is in position to sit on the NCAA bubble all season long. They rank a respectable 46 in kenpom's rankings, which puts them at #7 in the conference ahead of Michigan State and Maryland, among others. And, I mean, there's a lot of good wins here (though no great ones).
UT-Arlington (#66) - The big warning before the game was this wasn't some typical hyphen school, and they've lived up to the hype with road wins over Texas and St. Mary's.
St. Johns (#99) - They've been completely inconsistent this year, but they did just blow out Syracuse, who might be terrible, but they're a top 100 team so I'm putting them in here.
Arkansas (#44) - It's still the Razorbacks only loss, and they've beaten four top 101 teams.
Vanderbilt (#76) - There's a chance they're really bad, but again, top 100!
Add in Lafayette, Northern Illinois, Arkansas State, and Georgia Southern who are all in the top 160 and this has been the best non-conference season I can remember in a few years. Last year they had exactly 1 win in the top 100 in non-conference (Clemson). The year before that was also one (Georgia). In 2014 they had just two. You have to go back to 2013 to find better non-conference results, when they had five wins over Top 100 teams. What happened that year? They beat Michigan State at home in the Big Ten opener and went on to make the NCAA Tournament (and won a game!). Which brings us to Tuesday.
Once again, the Gophers open at home vs. the Spartans, and this is a game they absolutely need to win if we're serious about making the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State is ranked #53 at kenpom, and most likely the Gophers will be a short favorite. The Spartans are 8-5, which is slightly deceiving because they've played a hellacious schedule, but also not deceiving because they haven't beaten any of their top opponents other than Wichita State (#25). They do have three top 100 wins, but also come in with a bad loss to Northeastern. This isn't a gimme, but it's a game the Gophers can and should win.
The biggest variable in this game will be Miles Bridges, a much hyped freshman who has been out with an injury, missing the last five games for the Spartans. He leads the team in both scoring (16.6 ppg) and rebounding (8.8 rpg) and is really, really good. Obviously this game is much easier if he's out, and I'm looking for easy (tell your sister hi).
But really, this game isn't about Michigan State. It's about me getting sucked into believing in a Minnesota sports team for the one millionth time, which has resulted in heartbreak about 99% of the time. I'm trying my best to hold out on any sort of NCAA hopes until after this game, which basically means my entire sports winter is riding on this one stupid game. Sports are dumb. Go Gophers.