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Tuesday (Gophers' NCAA hopes) edition: Wha' Happened?

Posted by: Michael Rand under Sports Updated: March 2, 2010 - 9:24 AM

You can usually count on March for at least two things: false optimism and/or constant denigrating of a Twins veteran bargain basement free agent signing, and discussions/debates about which teams are NCAA men's basketball tournament locks, which are in good shape with work to do, which are on the bubble, and which are on the outside looking in.

Sadly (OK, not sadly), there is little to quibble about from the Twins' offseason. That void, however, can be filled with an extra-mighty fixation on whether the Gophers -- who play at Michigan tonight -- have a reasonable chance to make the NCAA tourney or whether they need something closer to a long shot. Myron took a look at this today, and the two "Bracketologists" he quoted came away with vastly different takes. One (ESPN's Joe Lunardi) thinks three more victories, by any combination of regular season and conference tournament, will get Minnesota (17-11, 8-8 in the conference) into the NCAA tourney. Another (Jerry Palm from Collegerpi.com) says the Gophers need to win the Big Ten tourney no matter what.

We'd say it's complicated, and that a lot of it could depend on how other bubble teams perform, the overall impression of the Big Ten and how Illinois finishes up. The Illini are in fifth in the Big Ten at 10-6, but their RPI (73) is even lower than sixth-place Minnesota's (70). Having not paid a ton of attention to RPI up until this point, we were kind of stunned to see Illinois was so low. Say the Gophers win at Michigan tonight and at home against Iowa to close the regular season. Those are two games they should win. They are not guaranteed by any means, but let's put them in the bank for the sake of argument. Illinois has two tough regular-season games left (at Ohio State, home vs. Wisconsin). There's a chance Illinois loses both of those and falls into a Big Ten tie for fifth with the Gophers. At that point, Minnesota would be seeded No. 5 in the conference tourney via tiebreaker and would avoid having to play in the first round. Instead, the Gophers would go straight to 4/5 game in the quarterfinals. In that scenario, we think Lunardi is right. Winning that quarterfinal game against a quality opponent (it would be Wisconsin, currently No. 18 in the RPI, if the season ended today) would be enough to get Minnesota into the tourney.

But let's say Illinois doesn't flop. Let's say the squad earns a split in its final two games while the Gophers still win their last two. Minnesota is then the No. 6 seed and faces the No. 11 seed in the preliminary round. At that point, we think they would need that victory and still one more in the quarterfinals to put themselves in good position for an NCAA bid. It wouldn't be assured at that point, but four consecutive victories -- even if three were over Big Ten bottom feeders -- would give Minnesota a 7-1 stretch at the end of the season, with wins over Wisconsin, at Illinois and one other quality opponent on a neutral floor.

Now, let's say Minnesota loses tonight and wins against Iowa to finish 9-9 in the Big Ten with the No. 6 seed. At that point, at minimum, the Gophers would need to get to the Big Ten tourney championship game. The might even need to win it all. They certainly would have to win it all if they managed to lose both of their final regular-season games. Our bottom line: The Gophers probably needs a combination of at least four victories to give themselves a good chance, unless they can sneak a No. 5 seed in the BT tourney that allows them to skip right into the quarterfinals. That we're even having this conversation is a product of two things: 1) The victory over Illinois on Saturday which, in retrospect, might have meant more than we thought it did at the time given how much it hurt the Illini and potentially helped the Gophers; 2) Minnesota's maddeningly inconsistent season, one that was not expected to result in an NCAA bubble at best, and one that could have been so much more with a few better decisions on and off the court.

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