Second half of Big Ten season to determine Gophers' NCAA fate

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 5, 2014 - 11:21 AM

At 4-5 in the league, U has nine games and a chance left.

Nine games are done, and no conclusion is reached. Nine games remain to change that.

The Gophers are halfway through a conference schedule that has felt like a roller coaster — filled with dramatic highs and lows that have inserted them firmly in the middle of the Big Ten pack.

What they do in the next nine conference games, beginning with Wednesday’s game at Purdue, will determine whether Minnesota can advance to the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season, and the first under new coach Richard Pitino. While it’s far too early to count them out — the league’s balance assures that Minnesota is still in it with a 4-5 Big Ten record — the Gophers will need to rebound from consecutive losses to Nebraska and Northwestern quickly in order to solidify their NCAA tournament résumé.

“If we don’t handle our business this week, we could be down at the bottom of the league,” Pitino said. “A week from tomorrow, we could be at the bottom. Or we could be at the top. It just shows how competitive this league is, top to bottom.”

Here’s a look at the first half of the league slate:

The good

• Minnesota’s offense has been relatively efficient. Pitino came in with a new system and a new philosophy, but the Gophers have picked it up quickly, their offensive efficiency rating (points per possession) climbing to 17th nationally and fifth in the conference. Pitino allows his players to operate with a lot of autonomy on offense, and the result has been confident players and, with a few exceptions (most notably on Saturday against Northwestern), consistent production.

• The center spot is stronger than anyone thought. At the beginning of the season, the frontcourt looked like the Gophers’ biggest liability. Now, that’s not exactly true. Elliott Eliason has provided a strong defensive presence in the paint for most of the year and, when he’s struggled in the past few games, backup center Mo Walker has conveniently picked up his play, giving the Gophers a legitimate scoring option in the post. It’s not a perfect mix, but it’s a big improvement from the expectations.

• The Gophers have proven they can play with the best. Minnesota has a losing record in league play right now, but the team has had at least an eight-point lead in seven of the nine games — every game until the past two. The Gophers have wins against two ranked teams — Ohio State and Wisconsin — the latter coming after Andre Hollins suffered an ankle injury. “I feel like we can compete with anybody in the Big Ten,” guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “As long as we keep playing hard.”

• Malik Smith has stepped up. With Hollins out, Smith’s role has become even more important. He’s slipped into the starting lineup and provided a big offensive spark at Nebraska, scoring 29 points in spite of the loss. In the past several weeks, he’s become a more complete player, rather than just a shooter. “He’s definitely done a good job of being a multidimensional threat offensively,” Pitino said. Now, the next step for him is finding consistency.

The bad

• Andre Hollins is out. The Gophers thrived in the game he went down, against Wisconsin but have played two of their worst games of the season since then, losing at Nebraska and to Northwestern. Minnesota has missed the guard’s presence both offensively and defensively and, with the rotation shaken up substantially, the Gophers are still trying to adjust.

• The defense has just been ugly. How ugly? Last-in-the-Big Ten ugly. Both Minnesota’s press and it’s 2-3 zone have been inconsistent and largely ineffective recently. In the past four games, opponents have shot 40 percent from three-point range, 52 percent on two-point attempts. And they’ve sent opponents to the line 100 times, compared to their 69 trips, over that span. All signs point to the Gophers defense only getting worse, not better.

• Can the Gophers win on the road? They haven’t yet shown that ability. So far, Minnesota’s most impressive road win is still at Richmond back in November. In the Big Ten, the only victory the Gophers have claimed away from Williams Arena is a win at Penn State — not exactly inspiring. It’s something the NCAA tournament selection committee will be looking for.

• Minnesota hasn’t shown the ability to close. As referenced above, the Gophers have had notable leads in most of their games. And yet they’ve shown the mind-numbing tendency to fall apart for 10-minute stretches, playing themselves out of games. “All the great teams, they always kick it into extra gear and push out their leads. We have yet to do that,” Walker said.

The outlook

Considering the modest expectations entering the season, the Gophers could be in a much worse position than sitting in a four-way tie for fifth place entering the final stretch. Still, they have much to prove. The defense has dragged the team down in a handful of very winnable games. Andre Hollins could miss a few more games. The execution needs to get sharper, and more consistent. Minnesota is firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble, owning a couple of strong wins but also some bad losses. The committee no longer weighs the final stretch more heavily than the first, but the Gophers still do have chances to impress, with games at Wisconsin, at Ohio State and at Michigan.



 

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San Francisco - WP: M. Bumgarner 8 FINAL
Pittsburgh - LP: E. Volquez 0
Minnesota 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Detroit
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
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Denver
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San Francisco
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San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
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Washington
Washington 1 FINAL
Buffalo 6
Carolina 3 FINAL
Columbus 6
Pittsburgh 2 FINAL
Detroit 0
Montreal 3 FINAL
Chicago 1
Arizona 2 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Fla Atlantic 6:00 PM
FIU
UCF 6:00 PM
Houston
Arizona 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Syracuse
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Army
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Maryland
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Tennessee
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Indiana
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Texas
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Clemson
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Colorado
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rutgers
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rice
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Kentucky
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Virginia
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa
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Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
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Toronto
Ottawa 10/11/14 9:00 PM
Brt Columbia
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Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 season     
Aug 28 - vs. E. Illinois 6 pmX42-20
Sep 6 - vs. M. Tennessee St. 2:30 pmX35-24
Sep 13 - at TCU 3 pmX30-7
Sep 20 - vs. San Jose St. 3 p.m.X24-7
Sep 27 - at Michigan 2:30 pm30-14
Oct 11 - vs. Northwestern 11 am
Oct 18 - vs. Purdue 11 am
Oct 25 - at Illinois 11 am
Nov 8 - vs. Iowa TBA
Nov 15 - vs. Ohio State TBA
Nov 22 - at Nebraska TBA
Nov 29 - at Wisconsin TBA

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