When a team gives up hope, senior guard Andre Hollins said, there isn’t anything else left to play for.
And so the Gophers, after one of their roughest starts to conference play in the past decade, is holding out hope that they can go on a tear and wind up, somehow, in the NCAA tournament.
But although the Gophers making the Big Dance is nearly a pipe dream — Minnesota probably would have to either win at least three of their next four games, or get the automatic berth by winning the Big Ten Conference tournament — it’s hardly the team’s only worry at this stage of the season.
After a 72-66 loss to bottom-feeder Northwestern at Williams Arena on Wednesday night, the Gophers left the door open to not only miss the NCAA tournament but the NIT as well, a slide that would stamp disappointment on coach Richard Pitino’s second year in the Twin Cities.
“Never give up hope,” Hollins said. “It’s been done before, and we have great opportunity.”
That’s one way to look at it. The Gophers face fifth-ranked Wisconsin twice in the coming weeks: in Madison on Saturday and again at home on March 5. In between, the Gophers travel to Michigan State to face a Spartans team that has looked much better in recent weeks. The Gophers close out the regular-season schedule with a home game against Penn State.
For an NCAA tournament berth, the Gophers likely need at least two or three more victories over top-tier opponents, so in that sense, the upcoming schedule is a good thing.
On the other hand, it makes going 1-3 or worse down the finishing stretch more likely. Should the Gophers do that, they will most likely not only miss the Big Dance but also the NIT, which they won a year ago after receiving a No. 1 seed.
At 5-9 in Big Ten play, the Gophers — who went 8-10 in the conference last year — probably need two more regular-season wins to make the NIT, at the minimum. In the past two years, only one team has sneaked into the secondary postseason tournament with fewer than eight conference victories: Illinois was 7-11 in the Big Ten last season, but the Illini also had three victories over ranked opponents, including two in conference on the road (at Michigan State and Iowa).
The Gophers have a cluster of critical young players — freshmen Nate Mason, Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou and sophomore Charles Buggs among them — who could benefit from an extension to the season, wherever it comes. All of those players will be expected to have increased roles next season.
“Those young guys … need reps, badly,” Pitino said. “You put them through an individual instruction and they look different from what they look during a game. It’s the speed of the game, so they need five-on-five game reps.”
Said Hollins, “Any type of postseason, to get extra reps in, just to end on a good note is always a good thing.”
The Gophers, who don’t have a single victory over a ranked team on the season, are on the verge of missing that chance. The NIT, eager to capitalize on the few non-NCAA tournament story lines that are marginally interesting, likely would give Minnesota the nod as the defending champion if the Gophers hit the bubble.
Right now, the Gophers aren’t threatening, but Hollins is encouraged by his team’s bevy of close losses in league play. Seven of their nine Big Ten losses have come within six points.
“I don’t like doing this because you start thinking ‘What if, what if, what if,’ ” he said. “But just looking at the two-point losses, the two-possession losses. We were right there. Excluding this last game [vs. Northwestern] — we laid an egg — we’ve been right there in most of these games.”