Here's the path to the Big Dance for Pitino's Gophers

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2014 - 1:09 PM

Four more Big Ten victories — and they’re there for the taking — should have the Gophers in the NCAA tourney.

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DeAndre Mathieu is hugged by head coach Richard Pitino during the second half at Williams Arena. The Gophers beat Indiana 66-60.

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Nothing in the Big Ten is ever easy, but with some favorable matchups in their final seven regular-season games, the Gophers could play their way into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the second season in a row.

The Gophers have opportunities to add to their signature victories total, which already includes a pair of wins over Ohio State (No. 11 at the time) and Wisconsin (No. 9 at the time). They face both those schools again, along with No. 16 Iowa and No. 15 Michigan.

Put in a difficult position by a three-game losing streak, the Gophers (16-8, 5-6 Big Ten) won against Indiana at home on Saturday and head to Wisconsin on Thursday to try to maintain momentum.

Minnesota needs at least four more conference victories to finish 9-9 and have a realistic shot at an NCAA tournament bid. The Gophers have three more games at home — where they’ve thrived, for the most part — and notching at least one road victory seems doable. Here’s a deeper look at the road ahead:

Thursday at Wisconsin

The Gophers need one impressive road victory. The only Division I victories they have away from home are Richmond way back in the nonconference schedule, and Penn State. This Wisconsin game should be that win. In their Jan. 22 game at Williams Arena, the Gophers took advantage of the Badgers’ weaker interior defense and showed they are capable of besting their border rival. Wisconsin’s recent surge back into the Associated Press poll, at No. 21, would make the victory look more impressive.

Pencil it in as a WIN.

Sunday at Northwestern

Weirdly, the Wildcats have been much better on the road than they have been at home this season. Maybe that’s because their home environment is not really an advantage, and at least on the road, they can get pumped up at the boos. Either way, they’ve gone 3-2 on the road in the Big Ten and 2-4 at home. Their last three losses have been at home. Plus, as surprising as Northwestern has been this season, I don’t see the Wildcats beating the Gophers twice.

Pencil it in as a WIN.

Feb. 19 vs. Illinois

The Illini’s victory over Indiana to start the Big Ten season seems long ago. Since then, all Illinois has done is win a pair over Penn State. Put this team at the Barn, and it doesn’t stand a chance. Does this mean four-game winning streak? Yes, I think so. (Good thing, because take a look at the next three.)

Pencil it in as a WIN.

Feb. 22 at Ohio State

Despite the fact that Penn State claimed its second Big Ten victory of the year there, Value City Arena really is a tough place to play. And perhaps more important, the Buckeyes finally seem to be finding the toughness they thought they’d have had all season.

Pencil it in as a LOSS.

Feb. 25 vs. Iowa

Anything can happen in the Big Ten, particularly in a raucous Williams Arena — and the Barn certainly has been that in the past several home games. But I’m still not sure the Gophers are ready to handle the Hawkeyes’ incredibly quick and efficient offense. The defense simply isn’t there yet.

Pencil it in as a LOSS.

March 1 at Michigan

The Wolverines no longer are invincible, but they’re still one of the most efficient offensive teams out there, and they haven’t lost at Crisler Arena all season. The Gophers will keep it closer than they did in a 21-point loss at Iowa, but they won’t have enough to pull out the upset.

Pencil it in as a LOSS.

March 8 or 9 vs. Penn State

If this prediction comes close, it will be a schedule full of runs. A four-game winning streak following a three-game losing streak, and the another three-game losing streak down the stretch. But Minnesota was blessed with a gift to cap the conference schedule — a home game against Penn State, which the Gophers should take with ease and enter the conference tournament on a high note.

Pencil it in as a WIN.

Big Ten Tournament

Of course, even if the Gophers don’t win four more, they still will have chances to notch big victories in the Big Ten tournament. It’s tough to rely on those neutral-court postseason victories, though. To lock it up in the regular season, this is the format.

 

Amelia Rayno amelia.rayno@startribune.com

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