In a conference as strong as the Big Ten, opportunities abound.
A basketball team can struggle through six losses in eight games, such as the Gophers men have this season, and still have the chance to play itself back onto the bubble.
And that’s where the Gophers (7-9) find themselves heading into Saturday’s game at No. 16 Michigan, the second-to-last contest of the regular season. After a bevy of borderline losses — at Nebraska, to Northwestern, at Purdue, to Illinois — the Gophers rebounded to put themselves back in the NCAA tournament conversation after a 95-89 victory over No. 20 Iowa on Tuesday.
“We’ve got nine losses in conference, and everyone says we’ve got a very good chance to go to the NCAA tournament,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “Well, the reason why is strength of schedule. And it’s not going to go down, obviously, in this conference.”
Saturday will be the Gophers’ third consecutive game against a ranked opponent — stretches that seem almost inevitable in the Big Ten.
A victory would give the Gophers a chance to go 9-9, essentially making them a lock for an NCAA bid.
But a loss at Crisler Arena would appear to leave the Gophers at the mercy of a selection committee that historically speaking has not rewarded teams in similar situations.
Though the Gophers received an NCAA invitation despite an 8-10 conference record a year ago, a look through history says that such a scenario is the exception, not the rule. Being below .500 in the league schedule has shown to be a very tenuous spot indeed.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 26 Big Ten teams have finished the regular season with records of either 8-10 or 7-9 (the conference played 16 games from 1997-98 through 2006-07). Only eight of them advanced to the NCAA tournament.
However, this will be the fourth year of a 68-team NCAA tournament field, with 37 at-large invitations (there were only 34 in 2010). can
These Gophers can help their cause in the Big Ten tournament, which gives teams with disappointing conference records a shot to play themselves into the NCAAs. It hasn’t happened often; since the conference tournament began in 1998, 15 teams have finished the regular season two games below .500 in conference play, and only six of those teams have advanced to the NCAA tournament.
Iowa won the 2001 Big Ten tournament to earn an automatic entry. Three others won at least one game: in 2001, Penn State won two games to advance to the Big Ten semifinals; Iowa did the same in 2005; and last year, Illinois beat the Gophers on a buzzer-beater in the first round to slide in.
That leaves two conference teams since 1998 that have reached the NCAA postseason with either an 8-10 or 7-9 record without winning at least one game in the Big Ten tournament — but the Gophers were one of those teams last year. Before the Big Ten tournament’s introduction, only two of 11 teams received an NCAA bid.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino has firmly said all season that the team does not discuss the NCAA tournament.
But it’s tough to argue that no one knows just how critical these next three games are.
Winning in Ann Arbor will not be easy. Michigan sits alone atop the standings and boasts the nation’s third-ranked offense, to say nothing of the incredibly talented individuals on the roster, including Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.
Even if the Gophers were to win at Michigan — which has lost only four times at home in the last three seasons — and lose at home to Penn State, they could potentially be the only team since 1985 to slide into the NCAA tournament with consecutive 8-10 records, based on the strength of their victories.
“We have one thing on our mind right now and that’s going to Michigan and pulling out a big win,” point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “Hopefully that will put us over the hump we need to get in to the tournament.”