CHICAGO – When Brandon Paul’s last-second shot fell smoothly through the net during the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday, Trevor Mbakwe and Andre Hollins were momentarily frozen in place.
They watched as Paul and his teammates began to jump and cheer in celebration, the scoreboard adjusting to 51-49 Illinois with the buzzer-beater. As it did, the Gophers’ NCAA tournament résumé dipped just a little bit more.
But if the Gophers were shellshocked, it’s no surprise. They have authored a roller-coaster season that saw a rise to No. 8 in the nation before a plummet to a No. 9 seed in their own conference tournament.
Through it all, Minnesota has clung to its early successes, which seemed to make its postseason résumé practically bulletproof. The Gophers probably will still earn a spot, though possibly as a double-digit seed, in the NCAA tournament. They figure to be one of at least seven Big Ten teams invited, the conference routinely praised as the best in the nation.
Even so, with two “bad” losses to cap the regular season and a first-round boot from the conference tournament, the Gophers have produced reasons for lingering doubt heading into Sunday, when the NCAA selection committee will pick this year’s tournament field.
“It’s not a feeling that you want to go into Selection Sunday,” sophomore guard Andre Hollins said. “We haven’t played our best basketball in the past three games. I mean, we want to have faith. We have a pretty good résumé. We have a good RPI. So we’re just going in — it’s not a feeling that you like to go in with on a loss.”
Mirroring the national scene
The Gophers have been among the most unpredictable teams in a volatile college basketball season. Unlike last season, when Kentucky established itself as the team to beat and ended up winning the NCAA title, there is no clearly dominant team.
Several squads have spent time ranked No. 1, taking turns getting knocked off. The No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament are not etched in stone going into the final day of pre-tourney play. Kentucky, a year after winning the title, is one of many teams on the bubble and could miss the tournament altogether.
As such, anything can happen if the Gophers get in. That said, there aren’t a lot of good feelings surrounding Minnesota right now. A year that began with great expectations and optimism — with this group being called Tubby Smith’s most talented bunch at Minnesota — crumbled in the Big Ten, with the Gophers’ 15-1 overall start evaporating into an eventual 8-10 league record.
They had highs, certainly — such as their 3-0 league start and victories over Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin and then-No. 1 Indiana. Rather than being part of something bigger, however, the wins proved to merely be blips on a radar that was mostly trending downward.
In their losses, the Gophers didn’t just fail to win, but instead were often overwhelmed, particularly at the end of the year. Early-season problems such as turnovers, poor shooting and excessive fouling remained issues all season, while the team’s signature feature — hard-nosed defense — got weaker and weaker.
When things started to fall apart, there was no apparent leader who scraped things together and picked up the pieces — not one of the veteran players and not Smith, who at times seemed as frustrated and disconnected with this bunch as outside observers are.
“We don’t have that one guy,” Smith said. “We’ve been looking for him, but we don’t have that one guy. … If I had a Carmelo Anthony or if I had somebody like Trey Burke, if we had somebody like that. We’ve tried in many different ways. Andre Hollins is probably the one that will give us the most versatility, but that’s about it.”
Chance at redemption
Despite their flaws, it seems highly unlikely that the Gophers will miss the tournament, considering their bag of accomplishments.
Minnesota has five victories over top-25 opponents, as well as 12 wins over top-100 RPI competition. While their RPI has taken a big hit in the past two weeks, the Gophers are still sitting at No. 33 in the country via realtimerpi.com. No team from a “Big Six” conference has missed the tourney with an RPI better than 40 since the formula changed in 2005.
As of Saturday, CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm had the Gophers as a No. 10 seed in the tournament with a first-round matchup against UCLA, while ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Minnesota as a No. 9 seed playing Colorado State and former Gopher Colton Iverson.
Based strictly on numbers, the committee’s decision seems clear. But members will view film and judge on a number of other factors.
“I’m sure they’ll see all the good that we did, and they’ll see the fight that we had in the second half [of the Big Ten tournament loss to Illinois],” senior forward Rodney Williams said. “Hopefully we’ll get a shot in the NCAA tournament to go out and make a run.”
Unfortunately for the Gophers, their late failures have left them using words like “hopefully” and “probably,” adverbs that seemed unnecessary after the team’s dominant start. If they don’t make a run — or somehow miss the tournament altogether — fan frustration and questions about Smith’s future will only intensify.
“We’ll be wondering and hoping,” Smith said, regarding his team’s chances of making the tournament. “We have had our chances to, for the last three games. … When you look at the entire body of work, I think we have done enough. But it’s not up to us. It will be interesting to see. It will be a sweat-it-out type of thing.”