Wednesday’s 53-51 loss at Nebraska was a huge blow to the Gophers basketball team, sending its RPI ranking falling from 15th to 20th.

They still have the second-toughest strength of schedule rating this year, trailing only Duke, and that ranking will be an important factor when it comes to getting an NCAA tournament bid. And luckily, they still hold their own destiny for the Big Ten tournament and their finish in the conference. Defeat Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday and they finish sixth; lose and it gets much more complicated.

It’s hard to believe the Gophers can play so well against Indiana and Penn State and then go to Nebraska, a team they crushed by 19 points at Williams Arena on Jan. 29 and had won only four previous conference games, and play one of their worst games of the season.

With the loss to the Cornhuskers, the Gophers are in a precarious position heading into the final game of the regular season. The Gophers, Iowa and Illinois are all tied for sixth place in the Big Ten at 8-9; Purdue is 7-10 and one game behind those three teams.

Because the Gophers and Boilermakers only face each other once this season, that means if the Gophers lose on Saturday, they will fall behind them in the Big Ten standings.

The Hawkeyes face Nebraska at home on Saturday. The Cornhuskers have only one road victory in conference play this season, a 68-64 victory at bottom-feeder Penn State in January.

If the Gophers defeat Purdue, they will be fine. With Illinois playing at Ohio State on Sunday, there’s a good chance the Illini will lose and fall to 8-10. So if the Gophers and Iowa both win, they will tie for sixth at 9-9 and the Gophers hold that tiebreaker.

But if the Gophers lose to Purdue, Illinois loses at Ohio State, and Iowa defeats Nebraska, the Gophers would tumble to the No. 8 seed for the conference tournament in Chicago next week. In that scenario, they would face Purdue in the first round.

Gophers coach Tubby Smith said after the loss to Nebraska: “They outplayed us, outworked us, outcoached us and were deserving of the win.”

If the Gophers are to beat Purdue, a team that is playing its best basketball of the year in winning at Wisconsin and losing a heartbreaker to Michigan, they can’t do what they did at Nebraska, making 10 of 20 free throws and getting zero points from senior forward Rodney Williams.

I could excuse the one-sided losses at Iowa and Ohio State — two teams that might be better and deeper than the Gophers. But with so much at stake, there was no reason to play so poorly at Nebraska.

Hicks feels ready

An exciting development for Twins fans and the team’s front office has been Aaron Hicks’ dominant play at spring training — hitting three home runs Thursday in Clearwater, Fla., including a leadoff solo homer against former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee.

After trading center fielders Denard Span and Ben Revere this offseason, there was concern about the Twins’ ability to fill the position if Hicks wasn’t ready. But he is hitting .407 in seven games with two doubles, four home runs, 12 RBI and nine runs scored, and Hicks said he believes he can earn a spot on the 25-man roster.

“I feel good out here,” Hicks said at the start of spring training. “I’ve been swinging the bat pretty well, and I’m ready to go. I’m ready to compete for this big-league job.”

Hicks said his main concern was being stable at the plate in his first big-league spring training.

“I would just say being consistent hitting-wise [is important]. You know, staying away from the peaks and valleys. Really for me it’s having fun, just doing what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid and enjoying it.”

His speed and ability to cover a large portion of the outfield is another of Hicks’ assets.

“[Leftfielder Josh] Willingham told me to always be ready to go, always be ready to roam the outfield and take as much ground as I want,” Hicks said.

Jottings

•  One of the first people in the Gophers basketball locker room to congratulate senior forward Trevor Mbakwe after his great performance against Indiana was Gophers football coach Jerry Kill. He is a big booster for all the Gophers’ teams and shows up for a lot of their games. … Mbakwe has been invited to the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational, where many of the top-ranked draft choices will participate in a tournament from April 10-13. Mbakwe’s teammate, Rodney Williams, who early this season was considered a possible first-round draft choice, wasn’t invited.

• The Gophers football team had three centers start last year and two of them, Zach Mottla and Zac Epping, were injured and eventually replaced by John Christenson. Now when spring practice starts, they will have a fourth center in Brian Bobek, a transfer from Ohio State. That means some of those offensive linemen will switch back to guard.

• Michael Carter, who had a great year as a Gophers defensive back, will still get some looks from NFL teams even though he didn’t run well in recent pro day workouts.

•  Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio has grabbed 43 steals in his past 10 games. That’s the fourth-highest total over a 10-game spread in the NBA in the past 20 years.

• The Gophers men’s track and field squad will have four individuals at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., this weekend: Jon Lehman and Micah Hegerle in the weight throw, Harun Abda in the 800 meters and John Simons in the mile. The Gophers’ distance medley relay and 4x400 meter relay team also have qualified.

• Former Gophers forward/center Colton Iverson had the best game of his career in Colorado State’s 78-56 victory at Wyoming on Wednesday. Iverson, who would have graduated last year if he had stayed with the Gophers, went 12-for-12 from the field, scored 29 points and grabbed eight rebounds. The Rams are nearly a lock for an NCAA tournament bid and Iverson is leading the team in scoring (14.4 ppg) and rebounding (9.7 rpg). The other former Gopher likely to play in the NCAA tournament is redshirt junior guard Justin Cobbs at California. Cobbs is second on the team in scoring (15.1 ppg) and leads the team in assists (4.8 apg).

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com