So we moved from 24 to 21 in the latest AP Poll. And we made our debut in the Coaches Poll at 22. It's January 20th and we've won more games than all of last year. And now we... might lose seven of our next eight? Let's try to sort through that.
Sunday morning I woke up and, in my ever-increasing pursuit of NERDstattery, checked KenPom to see where we landed after all of the Saturday evening games were complete. I checked the projections on KenPom's Illinois page and sure enough - we dropped six spots after struggling with last-place Northwestern and he has us losing seven of our next eight. So I tweeted it and asked for opinions (you people who were responding to me at 7:00 am on a Sunday need to seek help and if you find help can I have the number?). I received responses anywhere between 7-1 and 1-7. The average seemed to be closer to 4-4 than 3-5, which surprised me (my guess is 2-6, and remember, KenPom's numbers say 1-7).
Why 2-6? Just take the names off. These are updated numbers from that tweet (that was Sunday morning, and then Minnesota lost to Rutgers), so they won't match that tweet, but just look at this information. The 35th-best team in the country (per KenPom) plays the following schedule:
home for #36
home for #12
home for #7
Actually, let's add names back in. Pick some random ACC team last year. It has to be an ACC team with the recent history of Illinois so that's easy: Georgia Tech. They were in the title game in 2004, we were in the title game in 2005. They haven't been back to the Tournament since 2011; we haven't been to the Tournament since 2013. You see that 2019 Georgia Tech has this upcoming schedule:
at Florida State
home for Clemson
at Virginia Tech
home for North Carolina
home for Duke
at NC State
No way anyone sees Georgia Tech winning more than two of those games, right? Definitely not any of the road games, but maybe Clemson at home? (And that's a close comp - Clemson in 2019 was KenPom 36; Minnesota is currently KenPom 36. All of the other KenPom comps are similar.)
That's the negative side. We've seen this story before in the last six seasons. Opportunity knocks and we don't even walk to the door.
- Win 5 of 6 out of nowhere including road wins at Maryland and Ohio State in 2019? Lose six of the last eight with the only two wins coming over Northwestern (by 5 and in overtime).
- 10-3 non-conference in 2018? Start the Big Ten 0-8.
- Win four straight to get back on the bubble in 2017? Lose at Rutgers in the season finale (and then to jersey-less Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, by 20) and fall out of the Tournament.
Now we've won four straight Big Ten games (including a massive win at Wisconsin) to find ourselves in second place at 5-2. The pollsters have paid attention and we're now ranked (21 in AP, 22 in Coaches). If we win tomorrow at Purdue (we just beat them by 26) and if Michigan State loses at Indiana on Thursday, we're in first place in the Big Ten. Win both games this week and we should absolute be discussing winning the Big Ten.
So, uh, what if we're good? I know that we all know that we're probably not, but what if we are? It struck me today that I really haven't considered it. It made me think of Minnesota's football season. (What, you thought I'd get through an entire post without a football comp?)
Here's how Minnesota started this most recent football season:
- Trailed in the fourth quarter but came back to beat South Dakota State by 7. Not North Dakota State - South Dakota State.
- Trailed late but got a massive interception in the endzone and beat Fresno State in double overtime.
- Scored a touchdown with 13 seconds left to beat Georgia Southern by 3.
- Beat Purdue by 7, destroy Illinois, and suddenly they find themselves 5-0 and ranked 25th.
At that point, I'm sure there were many Minnesota fans who felt like I feel about our current ranking: it's not long for this world. They knew how close they were to an 0-3 non-conference. Three shaky non-conference wins plus victories over Purdue and Illinois doesn't really point to a team that should be ranked.
But they were actually good. Or, perhaps more accurately, they kept getting better. Yes, they could have easily lost all three non-conference games, but they didn't. They found a way to win when they were playing poorly, and then they found winning a whole lot easier once they started playing well. Next thing you know, they're 11-2 and beating Auburn in a New Years Day bowl.
That's the thing I'm not considering with this basketball team. I see pollsters ranking us 21st and I say "yeah, but look at the next eight games on our schedule - we're about to turn into a pumpkin". I see us beat Northwestern by four and think "man, there's a massive correction coming". I was there for Miami. I saw us struggle with Hawaii. I have a good idea of what comes next.
But what if we just, you know, found a way to win when playing poorly and are about to turn a corner towards playing well? Why am I not even considering that? What if, starting now, we begin putting everything together? Sure, we're not going to roll through these next eight games - everyone loses on the road - but what if we do go through this stretch at something like 5-3? What if we're 10-5 a month from today and staring down games against Nebraska, Northwestern, and Indiana that could move us to 13-5 in the Big Ten? What if we're ranked this whole time? What if we're... good?
Yeah, but we're 6 point underdogs tomorrow and then we'll lose at Michigan, fall out of the rankings, and get back to this "scratch and claw our way to a play-in game" season. We can't shoot, and it's going to be a problem all season, especially on the road.
Of course, what if we start hitting our threes? Man, that would turn everything around.
But that's not going to happen.
But what if it does?