Out of the two teams tapped in the Big Ten preseason poll to finish second and third in the conference, it’s the Minnesota Golden Gophers who are probably the most frustrated heading into the fifth game of Big Ten play.
After a 12-0 start characterized by home blowouts against mid-majors — with the occasional exception — it was always going to be interesting to see how the new-look Gophers would transition to the rigors of Big Ten play, where even preseason first-place Maryland suffered a loss in its second game.
So far, it hasn’t been going well for Minnesota.
In the Gophers’ three consecutive losses coming into tonight’s meeting with Iowa, they’ve been stuck in the 60s, scoring-wise. While they were outscoring opponents by nearly 21 points each in their first 12 games, their last three have seen them fall by an average of 13 points per game. It’s probably a relief to be back home, however, where at least their loss to Illinois was by just four points.
Speaking of close games, the Hawkeyes’ rigorous schedule has produced a lot of them. In games decided by single digits this season, Iowa is 4-2, with the losses coming to ACC rival Florida State in the Bahamas and Purdue in West Lafayette, on Jan. 10. Iowa has also benefited from late-game heroics, as Tania Davis delivered a timely three-pointer to beat Iowa State last month. This season, in these situations, it’s clear which team has more experience grinding out wins.
But, of course, this is the Big Ten — where anything can happen, anywhere, at any time. And with all three of last season’s meetings between these teams decided by eight points or less — Minnesota had the 2-1 edge, including a one-point victory in the Big Ten Tournament — a close game seems all but guaranteed.
Whether the Golden Gophers can get back some of that Williams Arena magic they’ve relied on all season against some of their toughest competition will depend on their ability to not only score more than they have lately, but also defend. By way of implied addition, defend Megan Gustafson, who has scored 35 percent of the Hawkeyes’ points in Big Ten play this season and whose career-high 48 points last season came at Minnesota’s expense.
With so much at stake, and with so much talent on both sides of the floor, this game will be more than worth its nationally-televised slot.
No. 22 Iowa Hawkeyes (11-4, 2-2) vs. No. 23 Minnesota Golden Gophers (12-3, 1-3)
When: Monday, Jan. 14, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Williams Arena, Minneapolis, MN
How to watch: ESPN2