Even going undefeated in the last five regular-season games wouldn’t be enough to get the Gophers men’s basketball team into the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive year.
That’s the harsh reality now, after a sixth loss in a row Tuesday dropped the Gophers’ record in their past 10 games to 1-9.
Minnesota (14-12, 3-10 Big Ten) heads to Indiana for Friday’s game enduring its roughest stretch since a 14-game losing streak during the 8-23 season two years ago. It will face the Hoosiers with four of its top six players out because of injuries and a suspension.
“I’ve never seen a team get hit with this many things in the middle of the season,” coach Richard Pitino said. “But we’re going out to win.”
Besides trying to win each night, the Gophers are still playing for something — to finish the year respectably and give fans, boosters and recruits a reason to have faith in Pitino’s program in the future.
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler showed support for Pitino and addressed those points with supporters at the Golden Dunkers booster club rally before Tuesday’s 91-85 loss against Nebraska at Williams Arena.
“This has been a year with some ups and downs, that’s for sure,” Kaler said. “We’ve had some injury challenges. We’ve had some player challenges. But I have full confidence in our coach and our coaching staff. These are great guys, we have a great recruiting class coming, we’re going to finish the year strong.”
Finishing strong and pulling off some unexpected upsets could get the Gophers into the NIT. The NCAA tournament, however, only seems reachable via the automatic bid that comes with winning the Big Ten tournament.
The Gophers, 1-9 since center Reggie Lynch’s suspension in early January, first need to stop the bleeding. Lingering injuries to guards Dupree McBrayer (leg) and Amir Coffey (shoulder) means Pitino likely will be without three original starters Friday against the Hoosiers (13-12, 6-7) in Bloomington, Ind.
Adversity first hit when top reserve big man Eric Curry was lost because of a knee injury in August. Still, Pitino returned most of the core from a 24-win NCAA tournament team. He still envisioned Gophers basketball taking the next step in Year 5 under his direction.
Pitino believes the Gophers still have enough talent to win — he constantly reminds them of that.
But recent games also have been about getting inexperienced and younger players more opportunity to play, including freshmen guards Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris, sophomore forward Michael Hurt and junior forward Davonte Fitzgerald.
Minnesota’s coaches also encourage seniors Nate Mason, Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou to enjoy the time with their teammates and make the most of their final days with the program.
“It’s crazy and it’s hard,” Pitino said. “We felt like this was going to be our year where we’d make a run at the Big Ten title and go deep in the [NCAA] tournament. We felt that, so for it to change in the middle of the season is really, really hard. I’m not going to act like it’s not difficult. But you’ve got to accept it, you’ve got to move on and compete your butts off for each other. I think we’re starting to get that. I’m proud that they’re not feeling sorry for themselves.”
The best the Gophers can finish is 8-10 in the Big Ten. They made the Big Dance in 2013 with that league record, but this is a down year in the conference and their RPI is currently No. 126. Winning out is an unrealistic hope, as it would require Minnesota to sweep three road games and beat title contenders Michigan State and Purdue.
Winning again isn’t impossible, though, especially with junior Jordan Murphy showing why he was recently named a finalist for the Karl Malone Award, given to the nation’s top power forward. Mason, a fellow captain, is coming off a career-best 34-point performance Tuesday against Nebraska.
Mason isn’t ready to give up hope on Minnesota making the postseason in his last season — even with the long odds against it.
“We still have a chance to win — we’re not just counting this season out,” Mason said. “We have five regular-season games ahead of us and the Big Ten tournament. So I feel like we’re in good shape and getting better every game.”