This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

  Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno

Was the Gophers strength of schedule a help or a hindrance?

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball, Gophers coaches, Gophers players Updated: March 18, 2014 - 11:17 AM

There were plenty of reasons Minnesota didn't get into the NCAA tournament. 

In the end, the Gophers probably just simply didn't deserve it in comparison with the rest of the field.

But there was really one argument that kept them in the conversation:

Strength of schedule.

Now, coach Richard Pitino is wondering whether it was actually a hindrance.

When it was all said and done, the Gophers played the ninth-ranked schedule in the nation in terms of toughness. They finished the year with a 20-13 record. 

That, Pitino thought, should have been enough.

"We played a top-[10] schedule ... you get to 20 wins, normally that's a recipe to get in," he said.

It wasn't.

"What happened was our quality wins stopped being quality wins," Pitino said. "Florida State, all of the sudden slid below 50 [in the RPI]. Iowa slid below 50. Iowa got credit for beating us, a top-50 win, we didn't get credit for them as a top-50 win. Richmond, their best player got hurt."

Those tumbles were problematic, sure, but it wasn't as if Minnesota didn't have other chances. In fact, you could argue they had the ninth-most chances in the country.

The NCAA tournament selection committee decided, ultimately, that the Gophers didn't do enough with them. Minnesota had just two wins against top-50 teams, a statistic that's almost hard to fathom given their scheduling girth. In some cases, the committee gave nods instead to teams with far inferior schedules, but who actually showed something in the tough games they did have.

"I just think moving forward, we've got to understand teams that had schedules in the 30s and 40s and had 22, 23 wins, they got rewarded," Pitino said. "Our goal is to make it to the NCAA tournament."

So did the Gophers' schedule really hurt them? Had they played a lighter schedule would they have notched two or three more victories and gone Dancing?

That's tricky. 

Of course, playing in the Big Ten automatically boosts a schedule. That's the part Minnesota really doesn't get to decide. Of the the six league teams that made the NCAA tournament, four of them -- Wisconsin (2), Michigan (5), Michigan State (13) and Ohio State (16) -- had top-20 schedules. Those slates weren't short on any names in the non-conference schedule, either. Michigan played Duke, Iowa State and Arizona along with FSU and Stanford. Wisconsin played Florida, Virginia and St. Louis. Michigan State had Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, UNC and Georgetown. Ohio State had North Dakota State, Marquette and Maryland.

And those that didn't have top-20 schedules, Iowa (37) and Nebraska (29) weren't short on powerhouses either. Iowa had Xavier, Villanova and Iowa State in the non-conference. Nebraska had Massachusetts, Creighton, Cincinnati and Georgia. 

By comparison, Minnesota's schedule actually looks a little wimpy at first glance. The only really notable team is Syracuse, although the Gophers also played at Richmond and against Florida State.

Their schedule, instead, was beefed up -- mostly by the previous coaching staff -- with decent teams from smaller conferences who were expected to win their leagues. Do that right, and your SOS will shoot through the roof without your squad ever being very threatened. Joe Esposito, on former coach Tubby Smith's staff, was always a wizard at that. 

That, too, was where the Gophers shined. They finished the non-conference slate with just two losses. Eleven more came in the conference slate. 

Pitino said yesterday that he wouldn't have given up the Maui Invitational -- where Minnesota played Syracuse -- and he has already scheduled a matchup against his dad, Rick Pitino and Louisville for next season. Yet obviously the Gophers wouldn't be able to pick up another win or two unless they had skipped that Hawaii trip.

So was it the Woffords and the South Dakota States that slowly wore the Gophers down, causing them to perform worse in January and February? If that was the case, the idea might be to land a couple of bigtime programs and fill in the gaps with teams all ranked 250th or lower. 

But I don't buy it. I think strength of schedule is still a huge asset in the eyes of the committee. At the same time, it's also not a free pass. 

A team needs to win some of the really impressive games to make the best of it, but such a stacked slate provides opportunity after opportunity to do so.

The biggest problem this season is that the Gophers didn't take enough advantage of that. 

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