What does an 8-1 start mean for the Gophers basketball team in December? 

It means Minnesota is now in early NCAA tournament bracket projections for the first time this season. On Thursday, ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi included the Gophers in the field as a No. 11 seed, one of the last four teams that would not be in the play-in game. It helps that Minnesota has a No. 7 Rating Percentage Index (RPI) and No. 27 strength of schedule (SOS) nationally.

There are eight Big Ten teams currently in ESPN's projected field Thursday, including Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan. Northwestern is on the bubble.

This is the first time the Gophers have been in Lunardi's NCAA tournament projections since the 2014-15 season. Not surprising since Richard Pitino went 8-23 last season.

The obvious reaction is don't get too excited yet. But this is a sign that the team's goals of making the NCAA tournament for the first time under Pitino are realistic at the moment.  

With four games remaining before Big Ten play, the Gophers need to finish 12-1 in nonconference to put them in a position to possibly be an NCAA tournament team without finishing with a winning conference record. They haven't had a winning Big Ten record since going 10-6 in 2004-05, but former coach Tubby Smith went to the tournament three times at 9-9 in 2009, 9-9 in 2010 and 8-10 in 2013.

Advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy projects Minnesota currently to finish with an 8-10 Big Ten record, which would result in 20 regular-season wins if Florida State is the only nonconference loss. That probably puts the Gophers on the NCAA tournament bubble. But let’s hold off looking too much more into what could happen in March. It’s not even Christmas yet.

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