Seven of the Gophers’ final nine Big Ten men’s basketball games are potential “Quadrant 1” victories, the term the NCAA tournament selection committee uses for the most valuable wins.
One signature victory recently got away from Minnesota after it blew a 13-point second-half lead Sunday in a 73-63 loss at Purdue. The Gophers just missed another 12 days earlier, when Michigan’s Charles Matthews hit a buzzer-beater to beat them 59-57.
Minnesota’s remaining schedule, though, is ideal for a team needing more quality victories to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday in March.
“It’s great when you have really good opportunities in front of you,” coach Richard Pitino said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Five of the last nine regular-season games for the Gophers (16-6, 6-5 Big Ten) are against opponents currently ranked in the Associated Press poll, including Wednesday against No. 19 Wisconsin and Saturday at No. 9 Michigan State.
Michigan, Purdue and Maryland are also on the docket; the first two are at home and the latter on the road. The Gophers haven’t played against five ranked teams in their last nine games in Big Ten play since 2011-12. Then-coach Tubby Smith ended up NIT-bound after finishing 2-7 during that stretch, including 0-5 against those ranked opponents.
Indiana, Ohio State and Nebraska were Big Ten teams ahead of the Gophers this season and safely in NCAA tournament contention until suffering losing streaks during tough stretches of their schedules. Pitino hopes his program can avoid such a collapse and take advantage of games that could put the Gophers back in the NCAA tournament after missing out last season.
“It can snowball quickly in this league,” Pitino said. “It’s tough to win on the road. We’ve shown more poise lately at Michigan and at Purdue to do some good things, but we didn’t win those games.”
Two years ago, the Gophers were fading fast after a five-game losing streak in the Big Ten, but they regrouped to claim an NCAA bid with eight consecutive wins, including seven victories in February. As impressive as that run was, only one of those victories came against a ranked team.
The Gophers relied on their defense to rally in 2017. Defense has been an emphasis this season, too, but it hasn’t been consistently effective. The Gophers are 13th in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense (46.3) and their defensive efficiency is ranked 79th — compared to 22nd in 2017 — according to kenpom.com. On the other end, their offensive efficiency is better this season: 55th, compared to 77th in 2017.
Relying more on offense means the Gophers can’t afford the lengthy scoring lapses that cost them road upsets against the Wolverines and Boilermakers.
“I’d like to say we’re a pretty good team on the break,” junior guard Amir Coffey said. “When we’re not rebounding, we don’t get out, so that definitely plays a factor. Scoring droughts are going to happen from time to time. It’s going to have to come down to what you do on defense and finishing out the possession with a rebound.”
The Gophers were up seven points in the second half at Michigan on Jan. 22 when the bottom fell out on offense. The Wolverines went on a 23-3 run after Minnesota went 1-for-14 and committed four turnovers in a 10-minute span.
On Sunday in West Lafayette, Ind., the Gophers shot 5-for-18 from the field (0-for-5 from three-point range) and got outrebounded 16-8 in the last 14 minutes of the loss against the Boilermakers.
“We have to continue to get good looks,” Pitino said. “Going inside and out, and going to the free-throw line is important. We missed two front ends of 1-and-1s that were a little bit timely. We started turning the ball over.”
The Badgers won’t make it any easier on their border rival to get good looks Wednesday night.
The Gophers, though, are confident they have what it takes to start adding quality wins in their tough final stretch in the Big Ten.
“We have really good upside,” senior forward Jordan Murphy said. “We play some really difficult opponents. The Big Ten is deep this year, so we just have to keep grinding.”