This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno
The Gophers did themselves no favors with a loss to Wisconsin on Friday, but despite the loss, Minnesota is still clinging to a slim chance at making the NCAA tournament field.
Several things would need to go the Gophers way today in order to keep them relevant.
Florida and Virginia (locks already) helped the Gophers out already by beating a couple of bubble teams in Tennessee and Pittsburgh. The Panthers likely will slide in anyway, but their future is certainly less certain with the loss.
As of now, both ESPN's Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports' Jerry Palm have the Gophers sitting on the wrong side of the bubble, but the former doesn't have them too far away from slipping in. Minnesota is just the second team out of the field on Lunardi's S-curve.
And Minnesota's resume still contains some intriguing elements. Even after falling to the Badgers, the Gophers' RPI is 49, a respectable ranking. If they do dance, it will likely be their fifth-ranked strength of schedule that carries them there.
Of course, the Gophers would also need a scenario in which very few teams not expected to get an at-large bid upset to win their tournament championships. We see several of those every year, and more than a couple of such wins could ruin any linger opportunity for Minnesota.
A few other games that could affect the Gophers chances today:
St. Bonaventure - St. Joe's: The latter is probably in the tournament at this point, but it's not a sure thing. A win would probably lock up their chances while a loss would make a Gophers leap-frog possible.
Duke - NC State: The Wolfpack is farther out on the bubble than Minnesota is, but a victory would put them in the championship game and add another unexpected automatic qualifier.
Creighton - Providence: The Friars are just barely in the field. Losing to Creighton would push them closer to the bubble; winning would give them an automatic bid.
Now, the NCAA selection committee will decide.
Friday, after the Gophers' rough loss to Wisconsin, which knocked Minnesota out of the Big Ten tournament, the team is on very tenuous ground heading into Selection Sunday.
CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm and ESPN's Joe Lunardi each had the Gophers watching from home in their tournament predictions this morning.
It's hard to believe Minnesota's first-round win over Penn State, in combination with their conference resume, will be enough.
The Gophers lack impressive wins away from home, beating only Richmond in the non-conference schedule, Penn State and Northwestern in the Big Ten slate and then the Nittany Lions once more on Thursday. Iowa's tumble has also hurt them. With the Hawkeyes dropping out of the top-50 on Friday morning, the Gophers have just two victories in that category. Those being enough to make the committee overlook a handful of bad losses seems unlikely.
A win on Friday probably would make the Gophers a favorite to at least participate in the First Four.
At this point, however, it seems Minnesota would need the perfect storm involving other bubble teams to slide in.
Yet, while the Gophers were obviously disappointed on Friday, they seemed far from crushed. The general theme seemed to be that they feel their season was ultimately successful and that they deserve to dance.
If not, they'll head to the NIT intent to win it, Andre Hollins said.
"The opportunity to play, to continue to play when [not everyone] else in the country is, that's huge right there," Andre Hollins said. "That's key. To keep getting better, competing. That's all you can ask for, to keep playing basketball."
At many times, the Gophers seemed primed to make an NCAA tournament type run. Throughout the year, Minnesota showed sparks of invigorating offense and huge improvements in a couple of key areas -- most notably at the point guard spot and in the frontcourt. The Gophers had a few wins that seemed huge at the time, including Iowa victory that almost instantly began to dull.
But defensive lapses, an affinity for turnovers and overall consistency were ultimately the downfall.
Pitino said on Friday he's still hoping that the Gophers sixth-ranked strength of schedule
nationally will hold a lot of weight in the decisions.
"We played one of the best schedules in the country, and that's normally what they want you to do," he said. "That being said, whatever tournament we are in, I'm proud -- we're disappointed tonight, but I'm proud of how hard these guys have played this whole year."
Now should the Gophers be in the NCAA tournament?
That's a subject that is up for plenty of debate.
There's an argument to be made when comparing Minnesota's resume with that of Iowa, which is considered a lock for the Big Dance despite a massive collapse to end the season.
After a Gophers win over Penn State and a Hawkeyes loss to Northwestern last night, Minnesota (47) moved inside the RPI top 50 while Iowa (54) moved out. The teams have the same number of conference wins. The Gophers have a better strength of schedule, too (6 vs. 19).
But where Minnesota remains unconvincing is in its quality wins. The Gophers don't have enough, especially with the Iowa victory stripped of its luster. And they haven't done anything impressive away from home, their only conference road wins coming against Penn State and Northwestern.
A win tonight against Wisconsin would change that and keep the Gophers from relying on the NCAA tournament committee to make a borderline pick. Beating the Badgers would take away the debate and make Minnesota as close to a no-brainer as its been all year.
It won't be easy. Wisconsin didn't become a projected 2-seed in the NCAA tournament being a pushover. But the Gophers have already proven capable of downing the Badgers this year -- and nothing about what Wisconsin does has changed much since then.
Guarding in the paint has been something of a weakness all year for the Badgers, and that story doesn't appear to be turning. In its last three games, Wisconsin has allowed opponents to make at least 51 percent of their two-point attempts.
Back in January, that's exactly how the Gophers whipped their border rival into submission at Williams Arena. Mo Walker had a career-high 18 points in that one, and the Gophers scored 48 points in the paint to charge past Wisconsin, 81-68. The next time around, that strategy was stunted when Walker got into early foul trouble and had to sit for most of the first half. When he came back in the second, he wasn't the same player and Minnesota had lost its advantage.
"Definitely a big rivalry game," DeAndre Mathieu said. "If guys don’t come ready to play for that one then something must be wrong with us. We’re going to come out fired up tomorrow and just ready to get after it."
Read my full game story on the 63-56 win over Penn State here.
This one was not the inspiring outing the Gophers had in their regular-season finale, or the raucous victory they had two games earlier, vs. Iowa (inconveniently helping to start an epic Hawkeyes tumble).
But the Penn State downing got the job done, and now Minnesota advances, getting an opportunity to face border-rival Wisconsin. A win tomorrow would probably spell an entry to the NCAA tournament. That other pesky bubble teams (Arkansas, California, Utah) lost tonight doesn’t hurt either.
On to the good and the bad:
*Austin Hollins has completely reversed his slump and then some. The senior went from seemingly being unable to toss a quarter into an open trash can to looking as dominant as he has in the Big Ten, in his career. With his game-high 18 points tonight, he has now compiled 75 in the last four games. It’s a pretty great time for him to go on a tear.
*Andre Hollins sat for long periods because of foul trouble, but then he came up big when Minnesota needed him, hitting that huge three-pointer with 15 seconds left to seal the win. The Gophers haven’t always shown they have a player who wants to and feels the burden to step up in those late-game moments, and his take-charge attitude was clutch. Will this spur a tear from this Hollins? Minnesota can only hope.
*Pretty good defense. In the last two games, the Gophers have held Penn State to .97 points per possession or fewer. But working that same magic against Wisconsin will be the real test.
*They continued their strong ball handling trend. In the last three games, Minnesota has had 12 turnovers or fewer. That might be the single most positive recent development.
*It wasn’t the most convincing win ever. The Gophers had those goofy stretches where they got sloppy, as we’ve seen plenty this season. They let Penn State ebb and flow; make run after run until the final run that nearly lost the game for Minnesota. A killer instinct has been lacking for most of the season.
*Minnesota allowed 15 offensive rebounds. We’ve seen this before too. The Gophers get lax on that end sometimes, getting lazy on the long rebounds, where Penn State really hurt them on Thursday. Against a better team, this could have been a big problem, but as it is, the Nittany Lions netted 13 second-chance points.
*Malik Smith is still not back. He made a huge three-pointer in the first half, but it was sandwiched between three other absolutely terrible shots, including an air ball. He’s trying to shoot himself out of this slump so badly, and to some extent you have to do that as a player. But Thursday, his shot selection was really hurting the team early.
Tonight's game tips at 5:30 CT and will be broadcast on ESPN2 and 1500-a.m.
The Gophers (7) have the upper hand when it comes to seeding in tonight's matchup against Penn State (10).
But in terms of exceptional players?
Earlier this week, the Big Ten media and coaches stated that edge goes to the Nittany Lions.
When the All-Big Ten teams and awards were announced on Monday, two Penn State players landed in the mix -- D.J. Newbill was named to the all-conference second team; Tim Frazier was named to the all-conference third team.
The Gophers? The only recognition came in the form of a pair of honorable mentions for Andre Hollins (from the media and the coaches) and DeAndre Mathieu (from the media).
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino plans to make sure his team remembers the discrepancy when they step onto the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday evening.
"It's not that I feel slight because there's a lot of really good players in this conference," he said. "But will I mention to them that there was no first, second, third, defensive, all-rookie, sixth man of the year? Yeah, I'll mention it to them.
"The teams that we're playing and the media that talked to us are the ones that chose it. You've got to use everything to our advantage, so I'll do my best to turn them on everybody."
The Gophers should need little motivation. Most agree that Minnesota -- firmly on the bubble for now -- need at the very least a win over the Nittany Lions if it want a chance at a bid in the NCAA tournament (and likely, they need one more victory after that).
Minnesota has already beaten Penn State twice this season, including an 18-point stomping over the Nittany Lions on Sunday, in the Gophers' last game of the regular season. But Penn State's talented backcourt ensures it has the opportunity to upset any team on a good night. Patrick Chambers' squad has won six conference games this season, including a sweep over Ohio State, and a win at Indiana -- something Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan all couldn't do.
On Sunday, Newbill and Frazier combined for 38 points, but the team mustered just 25 from everyone else.
In that game, the Gophers were able to capitalize on some advantages that normally don't exist. Penn State turned over the ball 16 times, something of a rarity for a team that normally handles the ball well. In the previous five games, the Nittany Lions had averaged just 10.2 turnovers a game. And the Gophers were able to get Mo Walker going in the post despite the Nittany Lions ranking first in the league in two-point defense. The big man finished with 16 points and the Gophers had 26 in the paint in all.
The trick for Minnesota is going to be to forget about all of that and treat tonight like a new game.
"This feels a lot like a new season for us," Walker said. "It's a new beginning for us. We've got a great chance to go out here and do big things in the Big Ten tournament. We've never won a Big Ten title here at the University of Minnesota so it's just another opportunity for us to make a lot of noise and get a run going leading up to the tournament."
If the Gophers win on Thursday, they will play Wisconsin in the second round on Friday. If not, they will head home and likely begin preparing for the NIT.
But whatever happens, the Gophers are looking at this season as a success already. After being picked by most to finish 9th by the media in the preseason, Minnesota finished in sole possession of 7th with an 8-10 record. Many thought the team didn't have NCAA tournament potential, yet here the Gophers are with an opportunity.
"I think if you'd told me at the beginning of the season we could maybe win a game or two, be in the NCAA tournament with returning 48 percent of our scoring, a lot of brand new guys, a lot of guys who have never played in these type of situations, I'd say where do I sign up," Pitino said.
"Guys like DeAndre have come in and given us unbelievable minutes -- he was a bit of an unknown. When you bring a junior college kid in it usually takes time to adjust, but to his credit he's done that. Joey King was in the Missouri Valley last year and he's proved to be a very good piece to what we're trying to do. Mo hardly played. And to his credit he's become a very good player. Elliott [Eliason] has improved. Malik [Smith] was giving us a lot."
At the same time, while Minnesota may have overachieved from initial predictions, expectations are fluid -- what people anticipated at the start of the year morphs as players improve and the team shows it can play with good competition.
For better or for worse, when you win a few really strong games, the losses look worse.
"I think we've exceeded a lot of people's expectations, and I think we've probably exceeded our own," Andre Hollins said. "But at the same time I think we need to strive to be better, and we've shown glimpses of that."
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