The Minnesota Golden Gophers square off tonight with the Michigan Wolverines in what is sure to be a classic Big 10 hoops game. Both teams enter the match-up ranked in the Top 10. Both have signature wins against ranked opponents. Neither squad will shy away from the challenge that the other presents.
For Michigan, the hype for this squad was present from Day One. This team was stocked with blue-chip recruits and returning sophomores/juniors, some of whom have an NBA-pedigree (seeing Robinson and Hardaway in Michigan jerseys is definitely a treat). Super sophomore Trey Burke was a half a bucket away from preserving the Wolverines unblemished season. Nobody in the media’s pre-season poll picked this Michigan squad to finish any lower than 3rd in the conference.
For the Gophers, there was only a little local hype regarding this squad. Everyone knew that Mbakwe coming back from his 96th knee surgery (approx.) would improve the squad. I think most fans (present company included) wanted to believe that last year’s run in the NIT was a precursor to something bigger. Hollins Squared had the look of a solid back court. Rodney Williams and Joe Coleman had a nice mix of athleticism and toughness. But Gophers fans have had a tough run the last 12 years. So it was guarded optimism at best.
None of the Gophers teams in the last 10 to 12 years ever looked like squads that could beat any team in the country on any given night. Tournament worthy? Sure. Though, none of those teams were good to the point where you would have included them in the conversation nationally. And frankly, I am not sure this team is that talented either. But do not tell them that.
This Gophers team has used its nonconference success – only one loss to a tough Duke team – as a catalyst for a strong start to the Big 10 season: 3-1 with two wins over ranked teams. However, solid wins aside, it may be the Gophers’ lone loss in Big 10 play that has been most telling.
In last Saturday’s game against the Hoosiers, the Gophers got down big in the first half. They played their game and Indiana basically shot the lights out and went up by 23. 23 you say? Well, the Gophers promptly came out and dominated for the entire 2nd half; coming within an Mbakwe defensive rebound of taking the last shot to tie the game. Throughout the entire game, and particularly in the 2nd half, you just had this feeling like the team never thought they were out of it. That kind of confidence, irrational or not, is a powerful thing.
To more fully understand the power of that kind of irrational confidence, I give you the classic 1989 flick: Kickboxer. This is Jean Claude Van Damme at his finest. Here is a brief recap in case you forgot the plot: Van Damme’s character is the corner man for his brother, an American kickboxing champion. His brother is paralyzed by the Thai kickboxing champion/overall bad dude, Tong. Van Damme swears to avenge in brother’s defeat. After a kidnapping, training montage, and a rape and rescue, Van Damme finally gets his chance.
Van Damme is told that he will be fighting Tong in the old style, which evidently means the fighters dip their gloves in broken glass first. Tong, in the ultimate bad ass move, gives his gloves a lick after the glass is affixed to them (skip ahead to the 10:00 mark for the madness). It is at that point where most people are like, nope, that is enough of that, I am out of here. Have fun everyone. Try the shrimp and scallops. This fool is crazy with a capital C! But not Jean Van Damme!! He was born irrationally confident.
You can guess the rest. Despite taking a massive beating (think Manti Te’o in the press right now), Van Damme overcomes the glass-licking psychopath and avenges his brother’s injury.
This Gophers team has that same irrational confidence that Van Damme has in Kickboxer. They play with a swagger that they can ball with anyone. In fact, the way this team rebounds, Tubby might actually have this squad eating glass as part of their university-approved diet. The mindset that you can hang with anyone and come back in any game is sometimes the difference between a nice little squad that makes the tournament and one that intends to make some noise when they get there. Tonight’s game will give us a good idea as to what kind of squad this Gophers team is. Personally, I think Michigan should consider getting out while they still can.