Gophers basketball forced to play the NCAA waiting game

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2014 - 11:03 AM
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Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino

Photo: Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

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Suddenly, the season has hit a pause.

There is no game prep to do. There is no opponent to scout. Even the character of the emotion the Gophers will feel is undecided.

Will they celebrate? Or will they have to move on?

After a four-month whirlwind of games and practices, highs and lows, the only thing Minnesota can do now is wait, and hope that through the bustle it has done just enough to dance.

On Selection Sunday, the NCAA tournament committee will decide that fate when it announces the field. Right now, the Gophers appear to be a long shot.

As of Saturday, CBS bracket analyst Jerry Palm and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Gophers on the outside looking in. But Minnesota still has an opportunity, should it get some help from other teams on and around the bubble. Palm had the Gophers as the third team out of the field on Saturday, while Lunardi had them as the second team out. If the right teams ahead of the Gophers on the S-curve lose on the final day of play, Minnesota has a slight chance to do some leapfrogging.

On Saturday, the Gophers got a little of that luck.

Expected No. 1 seed Florida knocked off bubble team Tennessee in the SEC semifinals, but the Volunteers still have a chance at an at-large bid, likely staying a step ahead of Minnesota. St. Joseph’s handled St. Bonaventure, eliminating the only team remaining in the Atlantic-10 semifinals that had no at-large hopes. A win by the Bonnies could have spelled trouble for the Gophers. Likewise, Duke polished off North Carolina State, the last standing ACC team needing to win the league tournament to get in.

But the Gophers were done no favors when Ohio State — one of Minnesota’s key wins — fell to Michigan in the Big Ten semifinals in Indianapolis. Same with Wisconsin, which stumbled against Michigan State. Minnesota needs for its victories to look as strong as possible to the committee.

Without the Gophers, the Big Ten looks to send six teams to the NCAA field — Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska. The Badgers (12-6 in the league) had a shot at a top seed but hurt their case with the loss to the Spartans in the Big Ten semifinals. Regular-season champion Michigan figures to be a No. 2 seed, with its rough nonconference performance likely holding it back.

The Cornhuskers, conversely, played themselves into the tournament with a huge end to the regular season, giving them the résumé to withstand their heartbreaking first-round loss to Ohio State on Friday.

Iowa has tried to play itself out with a dramatic collapse, losing six of its past seven, but still is expected to receive one of the 68 invitations. The Hawkeyes started the season strong, giving themselves a lot of room to fall. But of all the projected Big Ten tournament teams, their résumé most resembles that of the Gophers.

Minnesota actually had a better RPI (47) than Iowa (63) as of Saturday, and a much superior strength of schedule (5 vs. 53). The teams share nearly identical overall records; the Gophers finished 20-13 while Iowa finished 20-12. Both have nine conference wins, including Minnesota’s victory over Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

But where the Hawkeyes trump the Gophers is in their record against top-50 RPI teams, even if they aren’t one themselves anymore. Iowa has five such victories (Michigan, Ohio State, Xavier, Nebraska and Minnesota) while the Gophers have two (Wisconsin and Ohio State).

And for the Hawkeyes, the victories over Xavier and Ohio State came away from home. Contrarily, the Gophers haven’t beat a top-50 team on the road, topping only Northwestern and Penn State in the regular season.

The Gophers’ computer numbers are high enough that they won’t be counted out entirely until the official bracket is posted. If Minnesota does get a bid, it likely will be in the form of a invite to the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.

But until then, a reflection of the good and the bad is all the Gophers have. If they aren’t among the chosen squads, Minnesota is expected to compete in the NIT — far from a end-of-the-world scenario for a squad that lost its entire starting frontcourt from a year ago and entered the season with a new head coach in Richard Pitino, a new style and a lot of new, unhyped pieces.

The sparks of strong play and dominance elicited hopes of something more, however. Usually, when a team is on the cusp of an NCAA tournament, falling short of making it is viewed as a disappointment.

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