The Gophers have been playing the underdog role all season, and despite getting a boost with a No. 5 seed, their preparation for the NCAA basketball tournament’s first round has been no different.
“Everybody thinks we shouldn’t show up, from what I’ve been hearing and reading,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday, two days before his team takes on No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee in Milwaukee. “I think nationally there are a lot of people saying we’re not going to win.”
It’s common to see brackets heavy with 12-5 upsets each year. Only four times in the history of the NCAA tournament has every No. 5 seed avoided losing in the first round.
But the fascination with picking Middle Tennessee over Minnesota is about more than just a lucky 12-5 guess. College basketball observers from CBS to ESPN almost unanimously favored the Blue Raiders because they return key players from the team that beat Michigan State in the opening round last year as a 15th seed.
Middle Tennessee had the highest probable victory percentage of any No. 12 seed over a No. 5 seed at 42 percent, according to ESPN on Selection Sunday. Advanced stats analyst Ken Pomeroy placed the Gophers’ chance at losing at 45 percent. The Las Vegas betting lines essentially have the game as “pick ’em.”
Since an eight-game winning streak, the Gophers (24-9) have lost two of their past three games, including 84-77 to eventual champion Michigan in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. They’re down one starter after senior guard Akeem Springs tore his right Achilles’ tendon against Michigan State in the Big Ten quarterfinals and is out for the season.
The Blue Raiders are 30-1 and went 17-1 to win the Conference USA regular season and conference tournament titles. They’ve won 20 of the past 21 games, and their best victory was against Vanderbilt, another tournament team, 71-48 on Dec. 8. The Gophers also defeated the Commodores, 56-52 on Dec. 3 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“Now I know [MTSU coach] Kermit Davis and how good of a coach he is,” Pitino said. “I don’t need to be told to respect them. But our guys, I think they’re excited about an opportunity. I don’t think they feel like they’re done by any means.”
Gophers players are choosing to ignore the many voices, outside of Minnesota, picking them to lose Thursday.
“I don’t think a lot of us pay attention to that,” sophomore Jordan Murphy said. “We have to play the way we have been playing either way. They’re a good team. They’re going to come out firing on all cylinders, because it’s the NCAA tournament. We’re just worried about preparing ourselves.”
Murphy, who was an All-Big Ten third-team forward, said the Gophers respect the Blue Raiders’ talented frontcourt, which includes 6-8 Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who averages 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
But the 6-6, 240-pound Murphy, 6-10, 260-pound redshirt junior center Reggie Lynch and 6-9, 235-pound freshman Eric Curry hope to be more physical than their Conference USA opponent Thursday.
“We just want to send a message that we’re here,” Murphy said. “That we’re not going to back down or anything like that.”
Pitino is worried the most about dealing with Middle Tennessee’s switching zone defensive strategy, which the Gophers haven’t seen much in the Big Ten. The Blue Raiders can go back and forth from a 1-3-1 matchup zone to a 2-3 zone on the same possession.
“It’s kind of weird,” junior guard Nate Mason said. “[Monday] they threw it at us and we were kind of shaken up by it. We got to get back in practice [Tuesday] and try to figure out how to beat it.”