Ask Tubby Smith about his team’s spot in the NCAA tournament, and his response is less than 100 percent confident.
The Gophers coach, while leading his squad to 11 victories over top-100 RPI teams (three in the top 20), knows he and his limping squad also have given the selection committee plenty of negatives to ponder.
So with a final chance to gain some positivity as they barrel toward Selection Sunday — the No. 9-seeded Gophers face
No. 8-seeded Illinois in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago on Thursday — Smith wants to make a statement.
“I think we’ve got to be fighting for it all the time,” he said. “There’s a lot of [areas where] we’re suspect. Our full body of work is probably as good as anybody else’s around, so we’re at least in the top 20 or 30 I would think as far as RPI and things like that and the good wins, the quality of wins that we’ve had. But again, they look at what you’ve done lately too, and so that’s where we’ve got to step up in this tournament.”
CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm said over text that he doesn’t think the Gophers can fall out of the NCAA field even if they lose to Illinois. Most likely, he said, they’ll end up as a No. 8 or No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament as well, but depending on what they do and other teams do it’s possible they could rise as high as a No. 6 or drop to as low as a No. 11.
But even if the Gophers are just fighting for better positioning, historically speaking, they’ve succeeded in neutral settings.
The bulk of this Minnesota team — sans just Trevor Mbakwe and Wally Ellenson — was also part of the team that plowed through the NIT tournament last season after a disappointing regular season. They won two of three in last year’s Old Spice Classic in Orlando, and notched victories in the Bahamas against then-No. 19 Memphis and Stanford. Three of the starting five — Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins — were part of the team that beat then-No. 8 North Carolina in Puerto Rico.
The games will be held at United Center, a place where Illinois typically plays a game every season. There’s also a chance that more Illini fans — based on proximity — will be in attendance. Still, the tournament will offer a more sterile and balanced atmosphere than any away court.
Part of Minnesota’s success in those situations is due to the same issue that has also plagued the Gophers this season: their proclivity to overthink and get wrapped up in the details, Smith said.
“I think a lot of it has to do with how you just play,” Smith said of tournament situations. “There’s not a lot of preparation time, you just go in and play. There’s not a whole lot of thinking, or a whole lot of game preparation, and that may be better suited for us, to be honest with you.”
• Andre Ingram tweaked an ankle in Saturday’s 89-73 loss at Purdue, but is “fine” now, Smith said.
• Julian Welch didn’t play Saturday because of a lingering illness, Smith said. “He was very weak. I didn’t think he would be very effective, to be honest with you,” Smith said.