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We've looked at the projected NCAA men's basketball field from about 17 angles in trying to figure out if by virtue of their victory over Penn State on Thursday the Gophers are any closer to feeling confident about their chances on Selection Sunday.
All signs point to "no." It's still truly 50-50 right now. Maybe even more like 40-60. ESPN has Minnesota as the very last team out. CBS has Minnesota as the second team out. The Gophers got some good news when Cal, a similar bubble team, was bounced early from the Pac-12 tourney. And, of course, beating Penn State was a must in any of these equations.
But at the end of the day, we have a nagging suspicion it's going to take one more win. A victory over Wisconsin, projected by some as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA field and certainly as a high seed regardless, would come far closer to sealing the deal. We're not sure if it would get the Gophers out of the Tuesday play-in game, but it would make them feel very good about getting in the field.
A close loss? Well, that would sure be better than a blowout loss. How you play is a factor. The Gophers will certainly lobby, too, that one of their best players (Andre Hollins) was out with an injury during a critical stretch of losses (though that argument will also be balanced with the fact that the team's best win, over Wisconsin, came with Hollins playing only a minute).
But if they want to eliminate most doubt and turn 40/60 into, say, 85/15, they need to beat the Badgers again. For all the angles and math, it's about as simple as that right now.
NFL free agency starts in earnest Saturday when teams can start contacting players. By Tuesday, they can even start signing them.
What does it all mean? Well, it means a lot of money is about to change hands. And SI.com thinks those who buy on a couple of guys with local connections could regret it.
The site lists former Gophers WR Eric Decker as the No. 1 potential offensive "bust."
It lists Vikings DE Jared Allen as the No. 2 potential defensive "bust."
Eric Decker: Perhaps the most obvious candidate of all, really through no fault of his own. Decker is coming off a career-best 87-catch season, which sets him up to break the bank and claim No. 1 receiver money. The problem, of course, is that he’s not really a true No. 1 receiver — Seattle wiped him off the mat in the Super Bowl and even Decker recently admitted that (former?) teammate Demaryius Thomas is on another level by comparison. Decker will be the top WR available, assuming he does not re-sign with the Broncos. And that status coupled with his 24 TD catches over the past two seasons might encourage some team to deem him their go-to guy. His game may not be built for such responsibility.
Jared Allen: Allen has played every game since 2008 and averaged 14.25 sacks per season in that timeframe. In other words, he’s durable and still can wreak havoc in the backfield. His “bust” potential will grow exponentially, though, if a team asks him to take on more of a role than that of a pass-rusher. Allen, 32 next month, should not be counted on as an every-down force anymore.
Neither of those assessments is overly harsh, but we also see both players as remaining productive years into the future. So busts? Probably not.
The latest ESPN "bracketology" came out today, and they are both the final team listed in their respective fields among the "last four in."
If you want to read it a certain way, that of course could be interpreted as both Gophers teams being, at this point, the very last teams in the field.
The men's squad is tabbed as a No. 11 seed, playing one of those delightful play-in games in the expanded field of 68 before the NCAA tourney begins in earnest.
The women's squad is listed as a No. 11 seed as well, but that tourney has no play-in game.
The good news, we suppose, is both have winnable games coming up. The men close the regular season on Sunday at home against an improving but still very beatable Penn State squad, while the women drew lowly Wisconsin in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday.
The bad news, we suppose, is that a slip-up by either team in those games could spell doom.
We can't remember a night like Tuesday, when the Gophers won a track meet against Iowa (preferring to finish the race as the tortoise instead of the hare, but more on that later) and the Wolves came back to win at Phoenix. Both victories were largely influenced by two players -- redshirt freshman Charles Buggs for the Gophers and rookie Shabazz Muhammad for the Wolves -- who have typically only seen playing time in mop-up duty this season. Both had breakout games that, while they might not be indicative of greatness to come, at the very least rescued their teams in varying degrees of must-win games.
First, Buggs: He had played exactly 21 minutes this season -- 2 in Big Ten play -- before Tuesday. He had attempted three shots, making two. But with Oto Osenieks out with a knee injury and two bigs in foul trouble, Buggs was the spark the Gophers needed. He had 11 of his career-high 13 points in the first half, looking smooth and confident shooting from long distance. His three-pointer late in the half made it 45-41 Gophers and helped them take a halftime lead. His only bucket in the second half came at a critical time. A 5-0 run had helped surging Iowa get within 68-66, but his steal and layup ignited a 12-1 run that proved essential. That put Minnesota ahead 80-67. The Gophers did not make a field goal the rest of the game -- the final 8:30 -- but they made 15 free throws and never let Iowa reclaim the lead in a 95-89 victory. There was wisdom in the slowdown approach the Gophers took on a lot of possessions after taking that 13-point lead, but there is also danger in choking off your own momentum. It almost cost them on Tuesday, but huge performances by Austin Hollins, DeAndre Mathiue and the unlikeliest hero in Buggs were enough to get a MUST-HAVE victory. It moves the Gophers' conference record to 7-9, with three very good Big Ten wins (Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa). An upset win at Michigan and a home win over Penn State to close the season would seal an NCAA bid. A competitive loss to Michigan, a win over Penn State and at least one win in the Big Ten Tourney would at least give Minnesota (which bumped up to No. 43 in the RPI with last night's win) a reasonable shot at making the Big Dance. Anything short of that would be precarious at best in our minds. But that Iowa win was one they had to have.
Next, Bazzy: He's played just 140 minutes for the Wolves this season, but a combination of injuries and him forcing the issue with good work in practice have given him a little more run lately. He has 89 of those minutes in February, including 57 in his last three games. Tuesday was easily his most complete game as an NBA player -- 8 for 13 from the floor, six rebounds, a pair of steals and 20 must-have points in a 110-101 victory over Phoenix. The Wolves' playoff hopes are pretty much dangling by a thread, but they would have been far more precarious without a win over the Suns. They are now 5.5 games behind the Suns, who occupy the No. 8 spot at 33-23 in the brutal West. They're still 4 behind ninth-seeded (and out of the playoffs) Memphis. But there are still 25 games left. A loss last night would have been a two-game swing, putting them 7.5 behind Phoenix and all but dead. Now there is a glimmer of life thanks to a monster game from Kevin Love and an the unlikely contribution from Muhammad. Most impressive was his determination. The Wolves trailed 81-75 entering the fourth quarter, which is usually a recipe for a road loss with this team. Muhammad had 10 points in the final quarter, several massive rebounds and one huge assist, dishing to Corey Brewer after fighting for an offensive rebound and setting up a layup that made it 102-97. He is a terrific rebounder for his size, with 19 in his last three games over a total of 57 minutes. He presents matchup problems as a post-up option against certain wings/guards because of his strength. And if he stays within himself, as Rick Adelman has preached, he can help.
Like we noted before, none of this guarantees anything about what Buggs, the Gophers, Muhammad or the Wolves will do for the rest of the season. But for one night at least, we were treated to two massive pleasant surprises. We'll take what we can get.
Some of the highlights:
Fourteen humbling months later, Bielema's reputation has taken a considerable hit. While some rebuilding was expected on the heels of Arkansas' 2012 season -- a season it spent in limbo under interim coach John L. Smith, who took over for the disgraced Bobby Petrino -- the Razorbacks went 3-9 last fall and endured their first winless conference campaign since 1942. On consecutive weeks in mid-October, they lost to South Carolina 52-7, and to Alabama 52-0.
With Lane Kiffin now muzzled as a member of Nick Saban's staff at Alabama, Bielema is well on his way to replacing him as college football's most reviled figure.
Bielema's current arc is reminiscent of another previously successful coach whose stock plummeted upon moving to a new conference. Michigan's Rich Rodriguez went 3-9 in his first season in Ann Arbor in 2008, and while the Wolverines improved each year thereafter, he could never shake that nightmarish initial impression. Rodriguez's ugly divorce from West Virginia -- followed by an NCAA investigation into practice-hour violations -- did not help his cause.
The piece also makes the case that Wisconsin padded its reputation under Bielema by beating up the dregs of the Big Ten (including the Gophers). He's also apparently not particularly liked by at least one NFL agent.
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