When it comes to Sunday’s critical matchup with Iowa, Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino is much more equipped to handle preparing his players than projecting what the outcome means to his team’s NCAA tournament chances.
Pitino is no bracket expert, but he doesn’t mind pretending to be one.
“If you win four of your next seven games, and you beat the right teams, you can get in,” he said. “You’ve got to play efficiently. All your numbers have to play out. But if you beat the right teams, you could be in there. Obviously, five of seven and you’re all about a lock, as crazy as it sounds with 17 [wins].”
The Gophers (12-11, 6-7) are not among the 11 Big Ten teams currently projected to make the NCAA tournament, but they believe they know the magic number of wins to get there: four or five more.
Would that distance them from the bubble talk? Maybe. It would take a winning streak, which needs to start right away, vs. No. 21 Iowa (17-8, 8-6).
“We know this is the time,” guard Gabe Kalscheur said. “We know we only have so many games left. We just have to give it our all. We want to get back into the NCAA tournament, which is hard to do. We’re not just playing for ourselves, but we are playing for each other. We all want it. We just have got to go get it.”
What do the bracket experts think the Gophers need to do to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday in a month?
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Gophers among his first four out as of Friday, but he says they could jump onto the right side of the bubble and possibly remain by finishing .500 in conference play. That would mean finishing the regular season at 16-14 (10-10 Big Ten) in a historically deep year for the conference.
Minnesota still has four more Quadrant 1 win opportunities (Iowa and Maryland at home, Wisconsin and Indiana on the road). The Gophers are 4-10 in such games this season (against the highest-quality opponents in the NET rankings).
“We’re entering pretty rare territory, where we’re looking at basically .500 teams and saying, because of their schedule and the fact they’ve won some of those [Quad 1] games, that they’re at-large worthy,” Lunardi said. “Every committee member is going to value that differently, though.”
Pitino noted the Gophers rank first in strength of schedule in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. In November, they went 1-3 in road games at Butler and Utah and neutral-site games vs. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. They also lost to DePaul at Williams Arena.
“I think all that proves is that you can lose to good teams,” Lunardi said. “Clearly, when Minnesota has its ‘A’ game, they’re a tournament team from an eye test, I think. But does somebody go, ‘We’re just not taking 12 out of 14 [Big Ten] teams?’ Given the volume of opportunity, what level of success is acceptable?”
Of the Big Ten teams currently with losing league records, Purdue, Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan are still considered NCAA tournament contenders.
Four major conference teams received NCAA tournament at-large bids last year with sub-.500 conference records, including Minnesota at 9-11. Ohio State and Florida both had 15 losses, with the Buckeyes going just 8-12 in the Big Ten. It helped that they had nonconference wins at Creighton and Cincinnati.
“Minnesota has only one win away from home,” CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm said. “That’s a problem. Maybe you can get in that way this year, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
The Gophers’ best wins are all in the Big Ten. They swept Ohio State, with their only victory in nine true road games this season coming at Columbus. They have home wins vs. Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan and hope to add Iowa to the list.
After losing six of seven games last February, the Gophers seemed to play themselves out of NCAA contention. They turned it around by winning four of five at the end of the regular season and in the Big Ten tournament, including two wins vs. Purdue.
They can put themselves in stronger contention much sooner this year. Still, Pitino has avoided addressing the implications for March with his players going into Sunday.
“You’re not going to tell your team, ‘Hey, guys, we only need to win four of seven,’ ” Pitino joked. “We did a great job of handling the pressure and stress of that last year. You just focus on executing.”