Welcome to the Friday edition of The Cooler, where the forecast calls for a cold but interesting winter. Let’s get to it:
*I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with playoff probabilities, but I wouldn’t say I’m NOT obsessed. Let’s just say I’m interested in the future, but mostly in a way that factors in our confidence in the present.
As this relates to local sports, I see four high-profile teams right now that are on the postseason fringes at various stages of their seasons: the Vikings, Wild, Timberwolves and Gophers men’s basketball.
This is a self-limiting and by no means exhaustive list of prominent local teams in the midst of their seasons. I could have included Gophers men’s hockey (eh, not so good right now) or Gophers women’s basketball (plotting a very strong course for the NCAA tourney right now), but I wanted to zero in on four teams who feel — and the data shows — are toss-ups right now.
Let’s take a look at all four, where they stand and evaluate the factors that make it likely — or unlikely — they’ll reach the postseason this year.
Current playoff probability: 58.5 percent (Football Outsiders); 60 percent (FiveThirtyEight).
The good news: Despite a mediocre and largely disappointing 6-5-1 record (at least on the context of preseason expectations), Minnesota would be in the playoffs if the season ended today and controls its own postseason destiny. Win four games in a row, and the Vikings are assured of no worse than a Wild Card berth.
The bad news: There are three teams perched a half-game below the Vikings at 6-6, so their hold on the final playoff spot is tenuous. And if Minnesota loses at Seattle on Monday — a strong possibility given the Vikings’ struggles against top teams this year, particularly on the road — the probability of making the playoffs dips to 43 percent, per FiveThirtyEight.
Current playoff probability: 63 percent (Playoffstatus.com); 63.3 percent (Hockey Reference).
The good news: Even after four losses in its last five games and seven in its last 11, the Wild (15-11-2) is right on the fringe of the early playoff picture about one-third of the way into the season. A lot of peripheral numbers suggest the Wild should be getting better results and that if its goaltending improves things will start trending in the right direction. This has been the most consistent of the teams mentioned in this list, with six consecutive postseason berths.
The bad news: The Western Conference — and particularly the Central Division — is tough again. The team’s recent slide could be indicative of larger problems, and it’s hard to say how long new GM Paul Fenton will be patient. If moves are made, they might be more with an eye to the future instead of the present.
Current playoff probability: 55 percent (FiveThirtyEight); 28.4 percent (ESPN’s BPI); 36.3 percent (Basketball Reference).
The good news: It would have been hard to imagine the Wolves even being in this discussion a few weeks ago when they were 4-9 and trying to remake themselves on the fly following the trade of Jimmy Butler to the 76ers. But they took advantage of a nice 12-game schedule stretch and developed some strong chemistry and defense behind newcomers Robert Covington and Dario Saric to stand at 13-12 and least play themselves back into this conversation.
The bad news: The schedule gets considerably tougher (10 of the next 13 are on the road), and on some level the Wolves could be chasing that 4-9 start all season. The most daunting part, though, is the brutal Western Conference. Whereas the East could have multiple playoff teams who finish under .500, the West likely will have multiple teams over .500 who miss the postseason. Even if the Wolves rally to have a decent year, as they seem like they are poised to do, they could miss the playoffs.
GOPHERS MEN’S BASKETBALL
Current playoff probability: Last four in (ESPN); No. 65 and out (NCAA Net Rankings).
The good news: Well, let’s start by saying this is a very hard one to predict because so much season is left. The Gophers are 7-2 with some good wins and predictable losses so far. Beating Nebraska on Wednesday was huge. Talent-wise, the Gophers have the pieces to get there. And getting a healthy Eric Curry back as soon as next week would make the Gophers even more formidable.
The bad news: The NCAA is using NET rankings as a way to help determine the tourney field, and right now the Gophers are only No. 65 in that ranking. To feel good about making the tournament, a team probably wants to finish at least in the mid-40s. The Big Ten is deep again, so the conference season is going to be a gauntlet. A tourney berth could come down to a handful of toss-up games.
A Twitter poll question asking which of these four teams is most likely to make the playoffs (or NCAA tournament) is indicative of the volatility.
The Vikings are the closest to finding out, and a win Monday would vault them easily to the top of this list. The Wild two weeks ago looked like it was charting a path to the playoffs for sure, but things changed quickly. The Wolves were just the opposite, playing their way back into the conversation. The Gophers are the greatest unknown.
I’d agree the Wild is probably the most likely to make it. The odds say that, and its telling that even in the midst of a funk Minnesota is still very much in the early mix. I think the Vikings will make it, but I don’t think it will be pretty. Best guess is no on the Wolves because of the bad start, but they’re playing the best of all these teams right now and could change my mind very quickly. I think the Gophers will make it.
But it should be a long, interesting winter.