Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is normally written on Monday each week. Because of the holiday, this week’s ask the sportswriters was done Friday, Dec. 21.
•Question: The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team begins Big Ten Conference play Dec. 31, hosting Michigan State in an afternoon game. The Gophers are 11-1 after 12 games, with their loss coming at the hands of Duke. Minnesota has defeated, among others, Southern Cal, Memphis, Florida State and Stanford. What do you like about coach Tubby Smith’s team and do you see any big flaws? What’s your prediction for the team’s Big Ten record (18 games)?
-Dorr: There seems to be a little more depth on this team, if there are no injuries, and so far the seniors have provided good leadership and strong play. It might not be a big flaw but Minnesota doesn’t seem to be a particularly good three-point team. And we’ve yet to see how well they will react to a good press, that being particularly true in the Big Ten where the teams know each other so well. I have no idea how the Gophers will do in conference play. Would 10 or 11 wins be too much to ask? A key will be the first game, a home game with Michigan State. If the Gophers are serious about being a top team in the Big Ten they’ll have to win that game.
-Marxhausen: Tubby Smith has brought together a fantastic set up this season. What I like most of all is instead of trying to load his lineup with the best five available, he has Trevor Mbakwe to come off the bench and provide a spark to the starting lineup. Center Elliot Eliason has a big frame standing at 6-11 and weighing in at 260 pounds. He provides a defensive match-up against larger centers, but lacks the offensive prowess that Mbakwe has. The rest of the starting lineup has balanced scoring as well as chemistry with each other. Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins, Rodney Williams Jr. and Joe Coleman have done well to be able to read each other and pull together some victories. Some flaws I might see in the Gophers are the ability to rely on one or two players to lead the offensive effort to win a game. It is nice to see players stand out in a victory, but to be able to spread out the offense every game can turn into a hassle. When it comes down to it, there is no go-to guy game in and game out to take the last-second shot.
-Larson: The Gophers have gone 6-12 in the Big Ten in each of the past two seasons. Injuries and players leaving the program have been a factor but it’s time for Tubby Smith to show Gophers fans he’s the coach they thought he would be when he left Kentucky for Minnesota. Smith said before the season that this was his most talented team at Minnesota and that at least three of his players have what it takes to play in the NBA. Well, it’s time for the team to produce. Experience may be Minnesota’s biggest strength. Forward Trevor Mbakwe is a sixth-year senior and guard Julian Welch is a fifth-year senior. Add fourth-year seniors in forward Rodney Williams Jr. and forward Andre Ingram and this team shouldn’t be lacking for senior leadership. Anything less than an 11-7 Big Ten mark will be disappointing. Luther is correct in calling the opener against Michigan State a must-win.
•Question: The Gopher football team (6-6) faces Texas Tech (7-5) in the Meineke Car Care Bowl Dec. 28 in Houston. The Red Raiders are a 13-point favorite. How important is it for Minnesota to win this game? What’s your prediction?
-Dorr: I don’t think it’s that important for Minnesota to win. I thought it was important to get to a bowl game this season to show that Minnesota had made some progress under Jerry Kill. It sounds as though it will be a tough match-up for the Gophers. I haven’t seen the list but I imagine it’s unusual for someone to be a 13-point favorite at a neutral site. (Oops, Oklahoma State is a 17-point favorite over Purdue in something called the Heart of Dallas Bowl.) Those oddsmakers likely know what they’re doing so I’ll pick Texas Tech but hope for a Gopher upset.
-Marxhausen: Coach Jerry Kill’s philosophy of playing weak nonconference teams and then being ready to play against tougher competition is not necessarily the best course of action to prepare them for the big games. Not many experts, if any, are counting on the Gophers winning this game. The Gophers don’t have an impressive resume. After winning the first four games, the Gophers finished the season 2-6. The opponents of those two Big Ten victories have a combined record of 8-16. If Minnesota were to win this game, it would not only be a moral victory, but a victory to back the current coaching staff and give the team bragging rights they can hold over the critics’ heads. I don’t see the Gophers topping the Red Raiders, but actually losing worse than the spread has indicated.
-Larson: This game will tell us how much coach Jerry Kill’s program has improved. The six victories this season were against teams Minnesota should have beaten in Kill’s second season. Losses in any of those games would’ve indicated the program didn’t progress much from 2011. Minnesota needs to at least play well against Texas Tech if it wants to say improvement was made in 2012. The best thing the Gophers have going for them is that they may be more excited about playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl than are the Red Raiders, who expected bigger things this season.
•Question: Seven Big Ten teams are playing in bowl games. In addition to the Minnesota-Texas Tech game, Michigan State faces TCU, Purdue faces Oklahoma State, Northwestern meets Mississippi State, Michigan meets South Carolina, Nebraska faces Georgia and Wisconsin meets Stanford. Not a single Big Ten team is favored. How do you explain that? Take a guess at how many Big Ten teams will score a victory.
-Dorr: I wasn’t aware none of the teams were favored but it tells you how weak the Big Ten is considered by people around the country. I would guess there will be two or three wins by Big Ten teams but I have no idea which teams will win. If, as predicted, they all lose, it might be the worst performance ever by a major conference.
-Marxhausen: Plain and simple, the Big Ten did not live up to its expectations this season. Ohio State, the top team in the Big Ten, was not eligible for a bowl game because of NCAA violations. Wisconsin is the first five-loss team to make it to the Rose Bowl and although it won the berth outright, it is facing a team that has accomplished much more than the Badgers have. Although Northwestern has a great rushing attack, Mississippi State has a tough defense that has faced top-ranked offenses in Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M. Nebraska put on a horrible display against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game and Georgia came close to making it to the BCS Championship before losing to Alabama in the final seconds of the SEC title game. Michigan State came close to not even becoming bowl eligible and it faces a TCU team which beat the likes of West Virginia and Texas. Same can be said about Purdue which barely scraped by to make it to a bowl game. Michigan vs. South Carolina is lopsided in that South Carolina’s only two losses were against LSU and Florida. I think the Big Ten will finish 2-5 in the bowl games.
-Larson: The Southeastern Conference is where it’s at in college football. Its teams have out-recruited the Big Ten and other major conferences the past 10 years. Across the board, Big Ten teams won’t be able to match the speed and quickness they’ll be facing in these bowl games. Northwestern and Michigan State, which has a deceiving record, are the Big Ten teams with the best chance of posting bowl victories.
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