Rand: If U misses NCAAs, remember how low Gophers were picked to finish

  • Updated: March 12, 2014 - 7:55 AM

For a lesson on expectations, let’s take a trip back to late October.

A poll of 24 Big Ten men’s basketball writers concluded the Gophers would finish ninth in conference play (and Nebraska 12th, but we’re focusing on Minnesota here). The Big Ten Network’s website ran preseason predictions from six of its experts. Five of them picked Andre Hollins to make one of the three all-conference teams (including two picks for the first team). Five of them picked the Gophers to finish eighth or worse, with the lowest being 11th.

Somewhere along the way, the narrative shifted from “rebuilding season under a new coach” to “can this team make the NCAA tournament?” which is where we are now with the Gophers. They placed nobody on the all-conference team, but they finished seventh in the Big Ten and carry that seed into an opening-round matchup with Penn State in the conference tournament Thursday.

What’s it going to take: One win? Two wins? More? Those are popular questions, but this one is also important: Who really thought we’d be asking those questions this season?

Coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday he tries to avoid getting wrapped up in expectations. However. …

“I will say that if at the beginning of the season you had told us that we could maybe win a game or two and be in the NCAA tournament, returning 48 percent of our scoring and [with] a lot of brand new guys — a lot of guys who have never played in these types of situations — I would say, ‘Where do I sign up?’ ” Pitino said.

How a team responds to changing expectations often defines its season and even longer-term matters. The 2012 Vikings changed expectations for their rebuilding effort by jumping from three to 10 wins. When they slid back to five in 2013, coach Leslie Frazier was fired. Had they reversed their 2012 and 2013 seasons, Frazier could very well still be here.

The Wild plays in a brutal conference and has had three goalies start at least 18 games — not typically a recipe for success. But Minnesota made the playoffs last year, so the expectation is greater this year.

“It’s not so we make the playoffs, it’s so we get to go further,” owner Craig Leipold told the Star Tribune this week regarding this year’s trade deadline moves.

And if the Gophers fall short of making the NCAA tournament, even if it’s by the slimmest of burst-bubble margins? It won’t feel like a failure, but many will treat it as a disappointment even though it’s a surprise to be in this position at all.

MICHAEL RAND

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