How far can the Gophers go in the NCAA tournament? According to some on the outside looking in, a first-round victory is a good possibility and the Sweet 16 isn’t out of question, either.
Heading into Friday’s NCAA opener against sixth-seeded UCLA, that story line might be hard to fathom for Gophers fans who have watched their team lose 11 of its past 16 games.
But outsiders see other things: Injuries on the UCLA side; the Gophers’ ability to beat good teams; and the fact that the Gophers come from the most respected conference in college basketball. And when it comes down to it, the NCAA tournament is all about matchups — and the 11th-seeded Gophers were granted some good ones.
“They’re a popular upset pick,” CBSSports.com college basketball writer Jeff Borzello said. “I think it’s because they’ve shown their potential. Their ceiling is pretty good.”
Borzello has the Gophers exiting quickly and quietly Friday night. But he is not in the majority. After the brackets emerged Sunday evening, Minnesota quickly became a trendy pick to advance.
Both Yahoo! Sports and ESPN.com named the Gophers defeating the Bruins as one of their early upset picks. And chatter all over Twitter has heralded the Gophers even beyond that. Take for example Jason McIntyre, who runs the USA Today-owned blog The Big Lead, McIntyre tweeted on Sunday that his “knee-jerk” prediction for the South Region is the Gophers and Virginia Commonwealth matching up in the Elite Eight.
“As crazy as it sounds, yeah, they’ve got a chance,” USA Today college basketball writer Eric Prisbell said. “That’s a really soft part of the bracket. You look at UCLA’s issues, Minnesota struggles, Florida’s vulnerabilities, there’s no way you have a lock there. But somebody’s got to make the Sweet 16.”
Even Las Vegas is on board. The Gophers are one of only two lower seeds favored to win among the 32 games Thursday and Friday, making a potential Minnesota victory not even technically an upset in that regard.
It doesn’t hurt that UCLA just lost probably its best all-around player in Jordan Adams to a broken foot during last weekend’s Pacific-12 Conference tournament in Las Vegas.
But even if Adams were playing, the Gophers might have had the edge, matchup-wise. Rebounding is one of their strengths, an area that is a big weakness of UCLA. The Bruins shoot a lot of two-pointers — which the Gophers can defend — but not many threes, and the Gophers have had their difficulty with perimeter shooters throughout the season.
UCLA also doesn’t want to be in Austin, a point that coach Ben Howland made very clear to reporters in a post-selection interview.
“Honestly, I would rather be Cal right now,” Howland told the media, noting that he felt slighted by the NCAA selection committee’s decision to put UCLA, which won the Pac-12 regular-season title, in Texas. “I’d rather be a 12 seed right now, playing in San Jose.”
If those apparent advantages aren’t enough, the Gophers — who many remember beating then-No. 1 Indiana last month — just went through the wringer that is the Big Ten, and many national observers have taken into account the team’s strength of schedule and see battle-tested results.
“We certainly know how tough it is,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “That’s the respect that the Big Ten has around the country — by getting seven teams in the tournament.”
It all has been enough to convince many that the Gophers have a bright immediate future, even if their recent past reeks with ugly losses. Convince many, but not everyone — there are still those who look at them skeptically as well, hesitant to believe Minnesota — even with its talent and potential — could pick things up now and start winning.
“Each team has four days or so to prepare,” Borzello said. “If you look at that, it’s a pretty good matchup for Minnesota. But I just don’t know if I trust Tubby Smith in the four-to-five day preparation against Ben Howland.”
We’ll find out Friday.