Column: Minnesota must stand out in Big Ten play

Jack Satzinger

As the Badgers sauntered off of their home floor as double-digit losers to Duke earlier this month, this much became clear: the Big Ten is no longer college basketball’s top conference. Wisconsin opened the season as the unanimous Big Ten favorite and has looked the part, winning every other game on its nonconference slate to enter conference play as the No. 4 team in the country.

But the veteran Badgers are clearly a step below McDonald’s All-American clad teams Kentucky and Duke, which look determined to face each other in the national championship game before moving their rosters onto the NBA. The gap is even wider between Wisconsin and the rest of the Big Ten’s NCAA Tournament hopefuls, which have lost games to Incarnate Word, NJIT, Eastern Washington, Charlotte, Texas Southern, Eastern Michigan and more.

What does that mean for the Gophers?

They better finish near the top of the conference if they want to be playing for more than another NIT championship come March. Minnesota’s only losses are to now-No. 5 Louisville on a neutral court and at now-No. 15 St. John’s. Still, the Gophers don’t have a win on their resume that will wow the selection committee.

They squeaked past a solid Georgia team and dismantled both Wake Forest and Western Kentucky. Since then Minnesota has excelled at turning mediocre teams over at the second best clip in the country and is racking up assists at a higher rate than anyone else. But those statistics won’t mean much unless the Gophers can rise above some slumping conference opponents and assert themselves as a power in Big Ten play.

Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas aren’t at Michigan. Their rivals — Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Gary Harris — no longer play for Tom Izzo. Ohio State doesn’t have Jared Sullinger and looks very vulnerable inside. Yogi Ferrell is the only key contributor left from Indiana’s star-studded 2012-13 team. Nebraska, which started the season No. 21, hasn’t made the expected jump under Tim Miles and lost four nonconference games to unranked opponents.

The list goes on.

With just three ranked Big Ten teams — No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 12 Maryland and No. 20 Ohio State — Minnesota’s conference slate looks much more navigable than in recent years. That’s exactly why the Gophers need to escape Big Ten play with a record well above .500.

Signature wins in this year’s Big Ten will be few and far between, so if Minnesota is going to impress the selection committee and make the NCAA Tournament it needs to decisively break out of the conference’s crowded pack of good-but-not-great teams.