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Gophers playing for NCAA seeding, double-bye in Big Ten tournament

The Gophers men’s basketball team’s five-game winning streak puts it in the best position in years to finish with an above .500 record in the Big Ten.

That hasn’t happened since the 2004-05 season when Minnesota went 10-6.

It’s not likely the Gophers go undefeated the rest of the regular season, especially with road games left Wednesday at Maryland and March 5 at Wisconsin. But finishing 11-7 or 10-8 in the conference is realistic, which would mean a shot a top-four seed and double-bye in the Big Ten tournament in Washington D.C.

A fifth seed was the highest the Gophers ever had in the Big Ten tournament in 2005.

The first step toward that goal would be to pull off an upset Wednesday in College Park, M.D. That isn’t so far-fetched.

The Gophers lost 85-78 against Maryland on Jan. 28 at Williams Arena, but they did so after squandering a 12-point lead. The Terrapins are in the Big Ten title hunt with Wisconsin and Purdue, but they’ve proven to be vulnerable at home before. Nebraska beat Maryland 67-65 on Jan. 1 at the XFINITY Center.

If Richard Pitino’s team sees its winning streak end Wednesday, it will need to finish the home schedule with wins against Penn State and Nebraska to stay on track for the highest seed possible.

The Nittany Lions will be looking to sweep the Gophers for the second straight season. The Cornhuskers have won four of the last five meetings with Minnesota. These are arguably the two most winnable games of the conference season for Pitino. But they’re certainly not a given, considering the history and how unpredictable the Big Ten has been this season.

Let’s just say Minnesota won two of the next three games and went into the regular-season finale in Madison with a 10-7 conference record. A border rivalry game that actually means something, how cool would that be? And imagine if the Gophers actually won at Wisconsin for the first time since 2009.

The Gophers would be sitting at 11-7 in the Big Ten and 22-8 overall. That probably would be a top-6 seed or higher in the NCAA tournament. But not necessarily a top-four seed in the Big Ten tournament.

Minnesota would still need to finish with a better Big Ten record than Michigan State and the same or better conference record than Northwestern. The Spartans own the tiebreaker over the Gophers after a season sweep. But the Gophers have the tiebreaker over the Wildcats after winning their only meeting.

There’s a scenario where Minnesota can even go 2-2 in the last four and still earn a No. 4 Big Ten tourney seed. That’s only if Michigan State and Northwestern either both lose their last four or three of their last four games. Seems unlikely.

Regardless of what happens, the Gophers are basically playing for NCAA tournament seeding at this point in my opinion. Some of my media colleagues disagree that they would be dancing in March with an 8-10 conference record. But it's not about the conference record. It's who you beat and lose to, as well as RPI, SOS, etc.

I think they’re in right now. But losing your last four games is not a position you want to be in. Obviously putting yourself on the NCAA tournament bubble after the regular season. If the Gophers get to 9-9 with one more win in the last four -- they’re a lock to get an NCAA bid.

POLL VOTES: The Gophers hadn't been considered for the top 25 for nearly a month after five straight losses, but their five-game win streak has them back in that conversation. Minnesota received five points (not votes!) in the latest Associated Press top 25 poll Monday. The USA Today Coaches top 25 poll did not have the Gophers in the others receiving votes category. 

Postgame: Gophers sophomores Murphy and McBrayer lead in OT win

Gophers coach Richard Pitino had separate meetings with sophomores Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer at different points this season to figure out how to get them out of slumps.

For Murphy, it was about focusing on rebounding to make scoring much easier. McBrayer just needed to hear that his coach still had confidence in him and needed a spark now that he went from starter to reserve.

Murphy had his fourth straight double-double with 16 points and 15 rebounds. McBrayer broke out of a six-game stretch scoring under double figures with 15 points in Sunday's 83-78 overtime victory against Michigan.

McBrayer was just 3-for-9 from the field, but he led the team with 7-for-8 shooting from the foul line. The rest of the team shot 21-for-33.

“I think we were a little bit nervous to start out,” McBrayer said of his teammates. “But that’s going to happen. We stuck with it and we hit them when we needed.”

The Gophers were on a five-game losing streak a few weeks ago and it could’ve reminded Murphy and McBrayer of last season when they lost 14 in a row during an 8-23 season. But the returning players never allowed themselves to dwell on memories of what happened a year ago.

“We’re a really resilient group,” Murphy said, “a really confident group as well. We know we’ve been here before, made mistakes and we’ve had success. We know to learn from our mistakes and keep doing what makes us successful.”

Murphy is averaging 18 points, 15 rebounds and shooting 61.7 percent (29-for-47) in his last four games. He’s a completely different player, a much more aggressive and high-energy player than the one going through a stretch of six games under double figures in January.

“I just had to keep the same mindset I’ve been having,” Murphy said. “Just out there rebounding and being aggressive on the boards. Just trying to win every rebounding battle. My teammates are definitely finding me when I’m open. So it really helped my confidence. I hope I can keep it going.”

McBrayer joked that he expected Murphy to come down with “every one of my misses.” And it worked out exactly that way in overtime when Murphy slammed a McBrayer miss to give the Gophers an early lead.

“The little things win in this league,” McBrayer said. “Rebounding wins in this league.”

McBrayer started the first 19 games of the season, but he was replaced by senior Akeem Springs for the first time in a Jan. 21 overtime loss to Wisconsin at home. He scored 14 points against the Badgers off the bench, but McBrayer had been held under double figures in every game since until Sunday.

During that six-game stretch, the 6-foot-5 New York native was averaging just five points on 11-for-36 shooting from the field (33 percent).

“I thought I wanted to be more aggressive, try to get to the basket and get to the free-throw line,” he said. “I got confident and I kind of got going.”

COFFEY COOLED: Freshman Amir Coffey saw his team-leading streak of seven straight double-figure scoring games come to an end Sunday, just barely. He scored nine points on 1-for-4 shooting from the field and 6-for-6 shooting from the foul line. Coffey had just one field goal on a three-pointer, but his four free throws in overtime were crucial to seal the team’s fifth straight victory.

Coffey was clearly limping after a collision in the second half, but Pitino decided to keep him in the lineup at the end of regulation and overtime. He played 38 minutes.

“I was worried,” Pitino said. “He kind of got hit (in the leg). I called that timeout because he was really limping, and I said, ‘Do you want to come out?’ He’s a tough kid. He’s a quiet kid, so you wouldn’t know. He’s not this emotional guy. But he’s really, really tough.”

BACKUP HELP: For only the second time this season, Gophers center Reggie Lynch finished blockless in a game Sunday. The Big Ten blocks leader still had 11 points, eight rebounds and shot 4-for-4 from the field in just 13 minutes.

Lynch picked up his fourth foul with 9:46 left in the second half and didn’t return for the rest of the game. Freshman Eric Curry replaced Lynch, finishing with 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting and five rebounds in 35 minutes.

Pitino had a feeling Lynch might get foul No. 5 after fouling out eight times this season.

“I just avoided the inevitable,” Pitino said. “He was going to foul out, so I said, ‘Let’s just stick with Eric.’”

  

TV Listings

Local Schedule

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  • Chicago at Wild

    7 pm on NBCSN, 100.3-FM

  • Minnesota United FC at Toronto FC (preseason)

    2 pm

  • Gophers men's basketball at Maryland

    7:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Purdue at Gophers women's basketball

    8 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Tampa Bay at Twins (spring training)

    6:05 pm on 96.3-FM

  • Wisconsin at Gophers men's hockey

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 1500-AM

  • Dallas at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, ESPN, 830-AM

  • Twins at Boston (spring training)

    12:05 pm on 96.3-FM

  • Penn State at Gophers men's basketball

    2 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Wisconsin at Gophers men's hockey

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 1500-AM

  • Timberwolves at Houston

    8 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Gophers women's basketball at Maryland

    11 am on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Minnesota United FC vs. San Antonio

    11:30 am

  • Washington at Twins (spring training)

    12:05 pm on 96.3-FM

  • Miami at Twins (spring training)

    12:05 pm

  • Los Angeles at Wild

    7 pm on NBCSN, 100.3-FM

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