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Gophers make debut in early NCAA tournament projections

What does an 8-1 start mean for the Gophers basketball team in December? 

It means Minnesota is now in early NCAA tournament bracket projections for the first time this season. On Thursday, ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi included the Gophers in the field as a No. 11 seed, one of the last four teams that would not be in the play-in game. It helps that Minnesota has a No. 7 Rating Percentage Index (RPI) and No. 27 strength of schedule (SOS) nationally.

There are eight Big Ten teams currently in ESPN's projected field Thursday, including Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan. Northwestern is on the bubble.

This is the first time the Gophers have been in Lunardi's NCAA tournament projections since the 2014-15 season. Not surprising since Richard Pitino went 8-23 last season.

The obvious reaction is don't get too excited yet. But this is a sign that the team's goals of making the NCAA tournament for the first time under Pitino are realistic at the moment.  

With four games remaining before Big Ten play, the Gophers need to finish 12-1 in nonconference to put them in a position to possibly be an NCAA tournament team without finishing with a winning conference record. They haven't had a winning Big Ten record since going 10-6 in 2004-05, but former coach Tubby Smith went to the tournament three times at 9-9 in 2009, 9-9 in 2010 and 8-10 in 2013.

Advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy projects Minnesota currently to finish with an 8-10 Big Ten record, which would result in 20 regular-season wins if Florida State is the only nonconference loss. That probably puts the Gophers on the NCAA tournament bubble. But let’s hold off looking too much more into what could happen in March. It’s not even Christmas yet.

Springs not satisfied with big game vs. NJIT

When Richard Pitino goes to his bench this year, he has one of the top players from the Horizon League to provide a lift for the Gophers basketball team.

That turned out to be the difference maker for the Gophers in Tuesday night’s 74-68 win against New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Minnesota’s bench accounted for 21 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks, highlighted by senior guard Akeem Springs’ 19 points and seven rebounds in 29 minutes.

Springs' career-high scoring performance came with 33 points against Youngstown State last season with Milwaukee-Wisconsin. He scored 21 points in a loss against Notre Dame as a junior in 2015-16.

This was by far this best night in a Gophers uniform, but Springs wasn’t satisfied with the team’s effort.

“We just have to focus in on details,” he said. “What we practice has to transition into the game. It’s all a learning (experience). Part of me is happy we had this game, because it’s going to make us hungrier in practice. Because we know we’ve got to keep building.”

At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Springs has the strength and toughness to play in the post at times, especially against an undersized midmajor teams. His main focus in several games this season has been to shoot three-pointers. He's shooting 35.6 percent from beyond the arc this year.

But Springs dove on the floor for loose balls Tuesday. He worked hard defensively and crashed the boards better than he has so far this season. He finished 3-for-4 from the foul line.

“That’s what you need,” Pitino said. “Akeem comes in and hits big free throws when he needed to. …We got stops. We moved Akeem Springs to (power forward). He doesn’t know plays at the four. We just kind of found a way to do that. That’s what you got to do sometimes when you get into foul trouble. We just found a way to get it done.”

ILLEGAL SCREENS: When Minnesota trailed by 12 points in the first half Saturday against Vanderbilt, Pitino looked to his bench for a spark – and it delivered. Springs and Bakary Konate made a difference Tuesday.

Konate went scoreless but he had seven rebounds and three blocks in just 10 minutes. Pitino, though, is frustrated with his 6-11 junior center being called for so many illegal screens. He picked up two of his three fouls on poor screening Tuesday.

“Bakary is playing well,” Pitino said. “He’s just got to stop setting illegal screens. It’s driving me insane. Every play I come down and I try to think of a way to run a play without him setting a screen. And it never really works. I’m just yelling, “legal!” every time. I don’t even know if he understands what I’m saying. Clearly he does not. It’s disappointing, because he’s playing well.”

Jordan Murphy, who fouled out with a season-low two points and four rebounds in 15 minutes, also got called for a couple illegal screens. Reggie Lynch had a couple in the loss at Florida State. So maybe Pitino needs to spend more practice time going over one of the basic fundamentals for post players.

BLOCK PARTY 2: Lynch has 11 blocks in his last two games after recording five Tuesday against NJIT. The 6-10 Edina native entered the game with 3.6 blocks per game, ranking sixth in the nation. Lynch was limited with foul trouble in the first half. But he had five points, four rebounds and four blocks in 18 minutes in the second half. This is the second game in a row where he disrupted the opponents’ offensive flow late in the game. His six blocks were a major factor in Saturday’s win against Vanderbilt.

NO LYNN-SANITY: NJIT senior guard Damon Lynn entered the game averaging 23 points, which ranked top 10 nationally in scoring. But he was held to just 12 points on 5-for-24 shooting. Lynn had 33 points with 8-for-13 shooting from three-point range against Purdue this year. But he went just 2-for-15 from beyond the arc Tuesday night. Credit Gophers guard Nate Mason for the lockdown defense on one of the country's most explosive scorers.

"Nate played tremendous defense on Lynn," Pitino said. "Nate was on him for most of the game. He played 36 minutes. That's what you need."

TV Listings

Local Schedule

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  • Gophers men's hockey at Michigan State

    5:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Boston U.

    6 pm

  • Edmonton at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Detroit at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 830-AM

  • Georgia Southern at Gophers men's basketball

    8 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Boston U.

    2 pm

  • Gophers men's hockey at Michigan State

    7 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Vikings at Jacksonville

    12 pm on Ch. 9, 100.3/1130

  • Gophers women's basketball at South Carolina

    2 pm on SECN, 88.5-FM

  • Northern Illinois at Gophers men's basketball

    4 pm on 1500-AM

  • St. Louis at Wild

    5 pm on FSN PLUS, 100.3-FM

  • Golden State at Timberwolves

    6 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Florida at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Timberwolves at Chicago

    7 pm on ESPN, 830-AM

  • Belmont at Gophers women's basketball

    12 pm on 88.5-FM

  • LIU Brooklyn at Gophers men's basketball

    7 pm on 1500-AM

  • Wild at Nashville

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

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