Minnesota has already proven light years ahead of last season's 9-22 team that was ransacked with the resignation of former head coach Dan Monson seven games into the season.
These Gophers are 11-3, but their next stretch of games — at Penn State, at home against Indiana and Michigan State and at Ohio State — will prove if they're ready for an NCAA tourney run. They fell short again their toughest nonconference matchups and couldn't finish a vulnerable Michigan State team Jan. 5.
In the Big Ten, there's a free-for-all battle for spots three through five — with Indiana and Michigan State clearly ahead of everyone else.
Penn State, which hosts Minnesota Jan. 12, is right in that mix with the Gophers. The Nittany Lions beat Illinois and Northwestern to go 2-0 in the Big Ten. A win would be a big statement for both teams.
For the Gophers, it would mean that they've improved on the road — they won only one game away from Williams Arena last season. If they can play better on the road and win consistently at home, the Gophers have a legitimate shot to get their first tourney bid since 2005.
But a win at Penn State will be difficult to come by, especially with the way senior Geary Claxton has played lately. Minnesota is under a lot of pressure, knowing that it has a tough stretch ahead that could quickly put the Gophers at the bottom of the conference standings when the dust settles.
Tubby Smith, however, has a simple rule. He wants players to focus on one game at a time. But it's impossible to disregard what the Gophers have on their plate in the near future.
MINNESOTA 82, NORTHWESTERN 63: Northwestern had history on its side entering a Wednesday-nighter against Minnesota. They'd won six out of the last seven with the help of an annoying 1-3-1 zone defense that Minnesota couldn't dissect.
But Minnesota nullified Northwestern's zone with the help of a highlight-reel performance from freshman guard Blake Hoffarber, who hit his first five three-point attempts. Once Hoffarber got going, senior forward Dan Coleman, who finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds, had more room to work in the post, as the Wildcats tried to focus on stopping Hoffarber.
On top of that, Tubby Smith pulled out a zone defense of his own, after Northwestern went up 20-14 using a man-to-man defense. The switch helped Minnesota finish that half on a 28-9 run. The Wildcats couldn't overcome the onslaught.
And Northwestern also shot only 28.9 percent from beyond the arc. They'd led the Big Ten in three-point shooting entering Wednesday night's game with 38.9-percent shooting from the three-point line.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This team is for real; they're not a fluke." — Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo's take on Minnesota Jan. 5, after the Spartans nearly lost a 65-59 conference home opener.
ROSTER REPORT: F Busch is healthy again and slowly learning the system, after missing the first part of the season with a left leg bruise.
G Al Nolen shut down Michigan State G Drew Neitzel, who only finished with four points in the conference opener for both teams. Nolen also had seven assists and four steals to maintain his post as the league's steals leader.
G Blake Hoffarber continues to shoot nearly 45 percent from beyond the arc, but he hasn't played as many minutes recently as he has in the past in part because he still needs to grow as a defender.
Minnesota 83, Kennesaw State 66
UNLV 81, Minnesota 64
Michigan State 65, Minnesota 59
Minnesota 82, Northwestern 63
at Penn State, Saturday, Jan. 12.
vs. Indiana, Thursday, Jan. 17.
vs. Michigan State, Sunday, Jan. 20.