Taken in broken-down, digestible bites, there is not much shame in this Gophers men’s basketball season. Actually, in fact, there is still a lot of accomplishment. They have 12 wins against teams in the CBSsports.com top 100 RPI, and only 8 losses. They even have three wins against teams in that top 25 (Michigan State, Memphis and Wisconsin). Their “bad” losses came at Northwestern and at Iowa, neither of which – again, just at face value and not in aesthetic -- are really that bad. And until this past week, they had demonstrated competitive fight in every win and loss this season.
Their other seven losses have come to teams in the RPI top 30, including last night’s 71-45 stomping at Ohio State. All of those top 100 wins, though, have made Minnesota’s RPI nearly bulletproof, at least for now. It didn’t even move an inch after the loss, staying at No. 15. That’s just a number – one formula to measure strength over the course of a season, flawed as it might be – but it’s a number that has traditionally mattered.
What we are gleaning from Twitter, from online comments and good old fashioned face-to-face conversations, however, is this: Gophers fans might have taken all of this information and swallowed it more easily – viewed the season through a glass-is-still-half-full lens – if not for one major problem: They have already lived through this season in previous years, and they are tired of it.
They are tired of promising nonconference seasons turning to ash. They are tired of counting quality wins and hoping for an NCAA tournament spot. They are tired of watching teams that seem to regress as the season goes on, or at least that hit seemingly irreversible tailspins. And they seem to be tired of the head coach who has presided over all of these similar seasons.
Oh, and they are tired of February – and not just because of the weather.
The 2010-11 Gophers entered February 16-5 and 5-4 in the Big Ten, with solid wins over North Carolina, West Virginia, and a then top-10 Purdue team, among others. Injuries and lackluster play led to a 1-6 month of February. The Gophers never won a game after that, missing NCAA/NIT play altogether.
The 2011-12 Gophers were 16-6 entering February and 4-5 in the Big Ten. They had won four of their last five games to crawl back into contention, the last in January being an OT thriller over Illinois. They then went 1-7 in February, only somewhat salvaging their season with better play in the Big Ten tournament and a burst to the NIT title game.
The 2012-13 Gophers were 16-5 and 4-4 in the Big Ten entering February. They had lost some of the momentum from their 15-1 start, but their losses were still competitive and their wins included a home victory over Michigan State and a road win at Illinois. In February, they are 2-4. The two wins were squeakers at home that needed late heroics. The last two games have been road blowouts by a combined 47 points at Iowa and Ohio State. Their final game of February comes Tuesday at Williams Arena against No. 1-ranked Indiana.
That math adds up to 4-17 in the past three seasons in February. The math this season might still add up to an NCAA berth. In fact, it is still far more likely than not likely in our mind, with three very winnable games following this home game against the Hoosiers. Win all three – or knock off Indiana and win two of three – and they are in for sure. Win two of the next four and win one more in the Big Ten tournament, and they should be safe as well.
But again, what we’re hearing from fans is that it’s not so much about NCAA in/out. It’s about the look and feel of a team that was supposed to be different from past years but instead seems very much the same in the depths of winter.