How many wins until the Gophers are in the NCAA tournament?

The Gophers’ path into the NCAAs remains rife with speculation.

When Minnesota heads into Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the opening round of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament Thursday in Indianapolis, no one needs to tell Richard Pitino that Penn State will be hungry.

A year ago, the Gophers coach was on the flip side.

At Florida International, his Golden Panthers were bested twice by Middle Tennessee State during the regular season before turning the tables in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

“We were not losing,” Pitino said this week, the intensity rising in his voice. “We were not losing that game. We were not losing.”

Now, it is Pitino’s crew that will have to stave off a Penn State team certain to have that same mentality after losing to the Gophers twice during the regular season. At stake for the Gophers is their hope of gaining an NCAA tournament berth.

This much appears certain: Minnesota will need at least one more victory to have any chance of being invited to the NCAA tournament. After that, opinions widely vary.

CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm told the Star Tribune he doesn’t believe the Gophers are safely in the field unless they win at least two or three games in the conference tournament.

Pitino thinks otherwise, saying: “Jerry Palm is out of his mind if he thinks we have to win three games to go to the NCAA tournament.”

Pitino said he believes a victory over Penn State will be enough to make the Gophers serious candidates for an at-large berth, based on “20 wins, and you have a top-five strength of schedule [as of Tuesday]. … But obviously a couple things have to pan out the right way.”

The Gophers strive to take it a step further and just claim the championship, which carries with it an automatic tournament berth.

Inside the gym at the Bierman Field Athletic building, seven white posters are affixed to a wall, each containing one character:

“4 IN A ROW”

Minnesota has never won a Big Ten tournament. Doing so now would require a focus that allows the Gophers to block out the constant chatter that surrounds their NCAA prospects.

“It’s tough, especially with all the media and whatnot,” center Mo Walker said. “One day we’re on the good side of the bubble, the other day we’re on the bad side of the bubble. You just try to stay away from it, try to focus on getting better.”

They also need to understand that Penn State (15-16, 6-12 Big Ten) will enter the game determined not to lose three times in one season to the Gophers (19-12, 8-10). Penn State has beaten Ohio State twice this season and has victories over Nebraska and Indiana, giving the Nittany Lions hope that they, too, can win four consecutive tournament games and move on.

“We’ve got to come out with a sense of urgency,” Penn State associate head coach Keith Urgo said. “We know we’re capable of playing with anybody in the country, let alone this league, if we come out and play our game and play as hard as we possibly can.”

The Gophers barely defeated Penn State 68-65 at State College, then gained a blowout 81-63 victory Sunday in the regular-season finale at Williams Arena. For Pitino, that’s reminiscent of his FIU team a year ago, which lost to Middle Tennessee State once in a rout, then in a heartbreaker at the buzzer. FIU turned the tables with a 61-57 victory in the Sun Belt Conference semifinals, then lost 65-63 to Western Kentucky in the title game. Middle Tennessee State ultimately received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, something that almost certainly won’t happen for the Gophers with a loss to Penn State.

The Gophers’ résumé certainly suggests that a loss in Thursday’s opening round is possible.

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New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Portland 0 Postponed
Brooklyn 0
Sacramento 0 Postponed
New York 0
Philadelphia 74 FINAL
New Orleans 99
Minnesota 84 FINAL
Oklahoma City 92
Orlando 94 FINAL
Memphis 103
Boston 99 FINAL
Utah 90
Denver 98 FINAL
LA Clippers 102
Army 68 FINAL
American Univ 66
Wright State 64 FINAL
Detroit 53
Syracuse 83 FINAL
North Carolina 93
Cleveland State 56 FINAL
Oakland 59
Delaware State 54 FINAL
NC Central 55
High Point 63 FINAL
Presbyterian 54
Howard 45 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 42
Coppin State 84 FINAL
NC A&T 71
Nicholls 51 FINAL
Northwestern St 80
Hampton 56 FINAL
SC State 65
Gardner-Webb 59 FINAL
Campbell 78
MD-Eastern Shore 72 FINAL
Florida A&M 65
Stephen F Austin 82 FINAL
Lamar 65
Central Arkansas 67 FINAL
New Orleans 87
Norfolk State 70 FINAL
Savannah State 54
TX A&M-CC 70 FINAL
SE Louisiana 61
Sam Houston St 80 FINAL
Abilene Christian 63
McNeese State 84 FINAL
Incarnate Word 86
Milwaukee 48 FINAL
Valparaiso 73
Alcorn State 66 FINAL
Alabama A&M 78
Southern U 59 FINAL
Alabama State 63
Prairie View 68 FINAL
Ark-Pine Bluff 105
Texas 86 FINAL
Iowa State 89
Texas Southern 85 FINAL
Miss Valley St 84
Long Island 85 FINAL
Bryant 88
Central Conn St 51 FINAL
St Francis-NY 49
Fairleigh Dickinson 0 Postponed
Sacred Heart 0
St Francis-PA 87 FINAL
Wagner 74
Delaware State 59 FINAL
NC Central 66
Howard 53 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 61
Coppin State 49 FINAL
NC A&T 67
Hampton 88 FINAL
SC State 53
Norfolk State 54 FINAL
Savannah State 56
MD-Eastern Shore 54 FINAL
Florida A&M 64
Angelo State 55 FINAL
Abilene Christian 70
Samford 32 FINAL
(25) Chattanooga 49
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Ark-Pine Bluff 66
Alcorn State 58 FINAL
Alabama A&M 55
Southern U 53 FINAL
Alabama State 49
Texas Southern 63 FINAL
Miss Valley St 52
(12) Texas A&M 61 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 79
Robert Morris 68 FINAL
Mount St Marys 44
East Tenn St 72 FINAL
Mercer 70
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Furman 58
Morehead St 64 FINAL
Tenn Tech 54
Illinois 57 FINAL
Michigan 70
Quinnipiac 0 Postponed
Manhattan 0
Saint Peters 0 Postponed
Rider 0
(18) Miss State 59 FINAL
Auburn 48
(15) Nebraska 72 FINAL
(20) Iowa 78
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