Published November 22, 2012
MINNEAPOLIS – The sun, sand and crystal blue waters of the Bahamas await the Golden Gophers this weekend, a seemingly perfect holiday getaway just as the weather starts to turn at home in Minnesota.
The only problem is that the Duke Blue Devils are also waiting on the Caribbean island, along with a stacked field of competition that is going to dramatically increase the strength of a schedule that has been billowy soft to this point.
Minnesota kicks off the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament Thursday with a game against No. 5 Duke. The field also includes No. 2 Louisville, No. 13 Missouri, No. 19 Memphis, VCU, Stanford, and Northern Iowa. That's a major step up in the level of competition the Gophers have faced early in the nonconference schedule.
Minnesota opened the season against lightweights American, Toledo and Tennessee State before beating Richmond on Sunday to improve to 4-0.
"We play in a big-time conference, and we're going to play against big teams," forward Trevor Mbakwe said. "We all came here for that, and we've got the opportunity to play against one of the toughest teams in the best preseason tournament. I think we're all looking forward to it."
So are they ready?
"No," the typically blunt Tubby Smith said after a 72-57 win over Richmond. "Not after this performance. But we got the win, and we'll go back and see where we turned the ball over. But I expect that we'll be ready when we play them."
The Gophers won their first three games by an average of 30.3 points, hardly breaking a sweat to cruise past three teams that didn't belong on the same floor. The Spiders gave Minnesota more of a fight Sunday night, but Minnesota still managed to pull away in the second half for a 15-point victory.
The Gophers turned the ball over 19 times against Richmond, including 11 in the game's first 12 minutes. But they were able to buckle down defensively, something they will need to do a lot more of this weekend.
Minnesota leads the Big Ten and is ninth in the country in 3-point defense, allowing a paltry 19.1 percent shooting. That's a definite improvement over most of Smith's teams at Minnesota, including last year's team that was seventh in the conference, and 188th in the country, at 34.6 percent.
Granted, the level of competition the Gophers have faced so far plays into that strong start. Now it's time to see if the increased athleticism and return of Mbakwe and Mo Walker from knee injuries that kept them out last season will continue to pay dividends against the big boys.
"In all these games we've played so far, we've really done a good job of getting out and contesting shots," guard Austin Hollins said. "Our defense all around has just been great, and I think as long as we keep that up we'll be all right."
The Blue Devils have already beaten powerhouse Kentucky this season, and Louisville, Missouri and Memphis are all ranked opponents in the field.
Then again, the Gophers have had plenty of success under Smith in in-season tournaments, particularly against ranked competition. They are 11-4 in neutral-site, in-season tournament games under Smith and are 3-0 against ranked opponents in nonconference play, beating No. 9 Louisville in 2008, No. 10 Butler in 2009 and No. 8 North Carolina in 2010 on their way to a tournament title in Puerto Rico.
"Whoever we play is going to be tough," Hollins said. "Duke is just the first step. We're all ready to go out there. We all want to beat Duke.
"We've all got the same mindset. We're all on the same page. And I think that's what we're going to do: go out there and play as hard as we can. ... We're going to try to win the whole tournament. That's everybody's goal."
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski