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
Indianapolis - The Gophers might need a Big Ten tournament title to secure an NCAA tourney berth. But various experts think they'll get in with three more victories. Some radicals have even thrown two-and-they're-in out there.
But let's step away from the bracketology for a moment and focus on the moment.
Against Penn State Thursday night, the Gophers will face a foe that excelled down the stretch of the regular season and gave them all they could handle in two tough games.
This season's field isn't great. So logic would suggest that the Gophers have a good chance to make a run.
There's reason, however, to doubt that possibility.
The Gophers are still trying to find themselves. Hate to use the guru-talk, but it's the truth.
At times this season, they've played like one of the better teams in America.
They handled a good Butler team. They topped Ohio State and Wisconsin at the Barn and Illinois on the road.
They were a play away from beating nationally ranked Texas A&M. Ditto for close losses to Michigan State and Purdue.
But their lowlights contrast all of the highs.
Stomped at Michigan. Exhausted at Northwestern. Unraveled at Miami. Unprepared vs. Portland. Procrastinated at Indiana.
So which Gophers team will show up at Conseco Fieldhouse in a few hours?
The one that believes? Or the one that confuses?
The conference tournament is all about consistency. The teams that get into a rhythm beat that drum all the way to a title.
The others struggle.
My advice for the Gophers: Find an answer early.
If Blake Hoffarber is lighting up the room, feed him. If Devoe Joseph reaches an I-know-you-love-my-brother-Cory-but-don't-forget-about-me mode, let him go.
Maybe, they'll succeed inside. If the Twin Towers are tearing up the paint, go to them.
As much as teams like to talk about game plans and strategy, I don't think things are so complicated this time of year.
Adjust until something works, and when it does, go with it. Just ask Montana's Anthony Johnson. The teams that know who they are play well in these situations.
One of the Gophers' greatest issues this season, potentially their greatest issue in the conference tournament, has been their wavering confidence in who they are.
Are they a team that likes to throw the ball in the paint and let the Big Boys feast? Sometimes. Will they rely on the perimeter players? Maybe. Will they press right away, force turnovers and score in transition? It's a possibility.
My point is that the Gophers don't have a lot of time to figure things out in a single-elimination tourney that they might have to win to earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Although the Nittany Lions have struggled this season, everybody in Indiana knows their strategy. Talor Battle left. Talor Battle right. Talor Battle up the middle.
Can't say the same thing about the Gophers right now. Their versatility really helped them this year. But versatility can quickly become ambiguity, depending on their level of success.
They need an identity.
Prediction: Minnesota 65, Penn State 64
Other Opening-Round Matchups:
No. 8 Michigan vs. No. 9 Iowa-Don't sleep on the Wolverines. They don't have a ton of chemistry. And they've been as up and down as any team in the Big Ten, but they have one of the most talented duos in the league in DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris.
Prediction: Michigan 74, Iowa 59
No. 7 Northwestern vs. No. 10 Indiana-The Hoosiers were on their way to a better year before Maurice Creek went down with a knee injury in December. Their poor record hasn't stopped them from playing hard. I think they'll give the Indiana fans something to cheer about in the opening round: an upset.
Prediction: Indiana 77, Northwestern 73 (Overtime)
If the Gophers beat the Hawkeyes Sunday night, they'll finish the regular season with a 9-9 Big Ten record.
But a win is expected. It's hard to know, however, what kind of squad will show up after what happened at Michigan Tuesday.
That blow out did not define this squad. But it confirmed every concern about this team's inconsistency entering Big Ten play.
They're currently on the outside looking into the NCAA tournament because they've had too many stretches of uninspired basketball.
A big victory Sunday against Iowa might put the Gophers in the right frame of mind as they prepare for the Big Ten tournament.
They'll have to win it all to get into the Big Dance. But they picked a great year and field to enter the conference tourney as an underdog.
Let's see if their heart matches their aspirations in the final days/weeks of the season.
Prediction: Minnesota 82, Iowa 62
Ann Arbor, Mich. - There are so many unknowns.
Champaign, Ill. - No need for some lengthy blog post.
You all understand the stakes.
If the Gophers lose at Illinois Saturday afternoon, their extremely slim chances of earning an NCAA tournament at-large berth will be ruined.
In that scenario, they'd have to win the Big Ten tourney title to get a bid. Tough task for a team that's won just three games away from Williams Arena this season.
Winning out and getting to the Big Ten tourney title game, however, could be enough to secure an at-large berth.
No room for error.
Forget the history. The Gophers can beat the Illini.
But they could've/should've won games against Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, etc. They haven't proven that they can finish.
I think this game will be decided in the first 10 minutes.
We'll either see a Gophers team that's willing to come out tough against an opponent they haven't beaten on the road since 1996 or we'll see a squad that's run out of fight.
Double-digit win for the Illini or close victory for the Gophers?
Prediction: The cycle is broken. Minnesota 66, Illinois 64
This is the big one.
Minnesota v. No. 3 Purdue at Williams Arena Wednesday night.
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