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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Chicago 17 FINAL
Detroit 34
Philadelphia 33 FINAL
Dallas 10
Seattle 0 1st Qtr 14:04
San Francisco 0
Cleveland 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Washington 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee 11/30/14 12:00 PM
San Diego 11/30/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Cincinnati 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Oakland 11/30/14 12:00 PM
St. Louis
New Orleans 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Carolina 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Arizona 11/30/14 3:05 PM
New England 11/30/14 3:25 PM
Green Bay
Denver 11/30/14 7:30 PM
Kansas City
Miami 12/1/14 7:30 PM
NY Jets
Edmonton 0 1st Prd 4:05
Nashville 0
Robert Morris 71
Santa Clara 57 FINAL
Tennessee 64
Oklahoma 59 FINAL
Butler 46
Austin Peay 79 FINAL
Brown 58
Princeton 56 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 62
Coastal Carolina 67 FINAL
Chattanooga 78
Kansas 76 FINAL
Rhode Island 60
Wisconsin 68 FINAL
Georgetown 65
USC Upstate 68
Long Island 54 FINAL
Stony Brook 73
San Diego 71 FINAL
Xavier 82
Illinois 88 FINAL
Indiana State 62
Cal State Fullerton 67 FINAL
Wright State 62
Western Ky 62 FINAL
Saint Josephs 59
Michigan State 77 FINAL
Rider 45
UCLA 55 2nd Half 12:22
North Carolina 38
Marquette 7:30 PM
Georgia Tech
Long Beach State 7:30 PM
Western Mich
Stephen F Austin 8:00 PM
Prairie View
UAB 8:30 PM
Rice 8:30 PM
San Jose St 10:00 PM
Washington St 10:59 PM
UC Santa Barbara
Baylor 10:59 PM
LSU 0 2nd Qtr 8:48
Texas A&M 7
(6) TCU 13 2nd Qtr 10:25
Texas 0
Northern Ill 11/28/14 10:00 AM
Western Mich
Nebraska 11/28/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky 11/28/14 11:00 AM
(19) Marshall
UCF 11/28/14 11:00 AM
So Florida
Houston 11/28/14 11:00 AM
Akron 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Kent State
Ball State 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Bowling Green
Buffalo 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Toledo 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
Arkansas 11/28/14 1:30 PM
(17) Missouri
Navy 11/28/14 2:00 PM
South Alabama
(13) Arizona State 11/28/14 2:30 PM
(12) Arizona
Stanford 11/28/14 2:30 PM
(9) UCLA
(21) Colorado State 11/28/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
Virginia 11/28/14 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
East Carolina 11/28/14 7:30 PM
North Texas 11/29/14 11:00 AM
TX-San Antonio
Old Dominion 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Fla Atlantic
(16) Georgia Tech 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(8) Georgia
Kentucky 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(24) Louisville
So Carolina 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(23) Clemson
West Virginia 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Iowa State
Rice 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Louisiana Tech
Michigan 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(7) Ohio State
Purdue 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Illinois 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Cincinnati 11/29/14 11:00 AM
NC State 11/29/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Syracuse 11/29/14 11:30 AM
Boston College
Louisiana 11/29/14 11:30 AM
Utah 11/29/14 12:00 PM
Texas State 11/29/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Idaho 11/29/14 1:00 PM
Appalachian St
Wyoming 11/29/14 2:00 PM
New Mexico
New Mexico St 11/29/14 2:00 PM
Arkansas State
UAB 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(4) Miss State 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(18) Ole Miss
Notre Dame 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(10) Michigan State 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Penn State
(22) Minnesota 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(14) Wisconsin
(5) Baylor 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Texas Tech
Florida 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
Rutgers 11/29/14 2:30 PM
San Jose St 11/29/14 2:30 PM
San Diego St
Tennessee 11/29/14 3:00 PM
Kansas 11/29/14 3:00 PM
(11) Kansas State
Connecticut 11/29/14 3:00 PM
BYU 11/29/14 3:30 PM
ULM 11/29/14 5:00 PM
Ga Southern
Middle Tennessee 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Hawaii 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Fresno State
Wake Forest 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Pittsburgh 11/29/14 6:00 PM
(15) Auburn 11/29/14 6:45 PM
(2) Alabama
(3) Oregon 11/29/14 7:00 PM
Oregon State
Utah State 11/29/14 9:15 PM
(25) Boise State
Washington 11/29/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Nevada 11/29/14 9:30 PM
UCF 12/4/14 6:30 PM
East Carolina
Hamilton 11/30/14 5:00 PM
Hartford 43 FINAL
Furman 53
Clemson 77 FINAL
Ohio State 86
Idaho State 53 FINAL
San Diego State 68
East Carolina 58 FINAL
(22) Syracuse 69
Santa Clara 0 Cancelled
Texas-El Paso 0
Florida State 68 FINAL
Washington 80
Wichita State 39 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 56
Wisconsin 44 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 67
Kansas State 0 Cancelled
BYU-Hawaii 52
Charlotte 58 FINAL
Montana 67
Illinois 77 FINAL
(9) Kentucky 71
Central Michigan 7:00 PM
Oklahoma 7:15 PM
South Florida
Princeton 7:30 PM
Wake Forest
(19) Oregon State 8:00 PM
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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 pmX30-14
Oct 11 - vs. Northwestern 11 amX24-17
Oct 18 - vs. Purdue 11 amX39-38
Oct 25 - at Illinois 11 amX28-24
Nov 8 - vs. Iowa 11 amX51-14
Nov 15 - vs. Ohio State 11 amX31-24
Nov 22 - at Nebraska 11 amX28-24
Nov 29 - at Wisconsin 2:30 pm




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