In the days leading up to the biggest game of the season against No. 11 Purdue, Richard Pitino did what his Gophers didn't see coming: He played the part of bracketologist.

His team had been trying to ignore social media and the mock brackets as pressure mounted. With six losses in February, the Gophers were fading from the NCAA men's basketball tournament picture.

Pitino executed a 180-degree turn that first week of March with his philosophy, telling the Gophers if they wanted to go dancing, they needed to beat the Boilermakers on Senior Night. They rose to the challenge with a 73-69 upset.

Now entering Thursday's Big Ten tournament opener, Pitino is following bracket projections more comfortably. He says he believes the U is in good shape to receive the program's second NCAA tournament at-large bid in three years. The Gophers came to Chicago looking to win games, and seventh-seeded Minnesota (19-12, 9-11 Big Ten) starts with No. 10 seed Penn State (14-17, 7-13) in its first game. But even if the Gophers don't get to 20 wins, Pitino is planning on the NCAAs.

"I guess when I talk about it, it implies almost like we're good, we don't want to beat Penn State," Pitino said. "No, that's not the case. But every single bracketologist has us as a No. 10 seed. … When you play Penn State, one of the beauties of this league is that's a Quad 1 opportunity. If you lose it, you're not going to drop. People don't understand."

"Quad 1" refers to Quadrant 1, the term for the most valuable games in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee. It's a complicated process to understand, and one guy who understands it better than most is ESPN's bracket man Joe Lunardi. Lunardi's worst-case scenario for Minnesota: falling to one of the play-in games in Dayton, Ohio, if Minnesota loses Thursday.

"I think it will lead to a very long three or four days [for the Gophers if they lost to Penn State]," Lunardi said. "A lot of people would probably be down on them. … I could see them sliding into the Dayton First-Four grouping if they lose. … But the flip of it is, it would be a better win than you think if they do prevail."

Pitino's players know what the quadrant system is and what games are most impressive to the selection committee.

"I think it's important to get this first win against Penn State," All-Big Ten senior forward Jordan Murphy said. "Obviously, they're a really good team. That's a Quad 1 win. That has to be our sole focus right now."

The Gophers are 3-9 in Quad 1 games this season and 7-3 vs. Quad 2 opponents. The worst losses a team can have on its résumé are Quad 3 and 4 losses, and Minnesota has zero of those.

"You don't drop three seed lines if you lose one game to a Quad 1," Pitino said. "I do think that we're in. I said it before. … We're not even focused on that anymore. We're more focused on Penn State and excited about that."

The Nittany Lions have to win the conference tournament to make the NCAAs, so they're playing for their season, essentially, on Thursday evening. Since losing 65-64 to the Gophers at Williams Arena on Jan. 19, Penn State has become one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten. All-Big Ten forward Lamar Stevens has led them to seven wins in the past 10 games, including over Michigan and Maryland.

"I don't think many people thought we would accomplish what we did," said Penn State coach Pat Chambers, who opened league play 0-10. "The way Lamar Stevens played all year long, he's a warrior, an absolute warrior."

The Nittany Lions are a much better team than when they played in Minneapolis, but so are the Gophers.

Junior guard Amir Coffey is averaging 28 points in his past three games, but defensively is where Pitino said his team has made the biggest jump. The Gophers have held five teams under 40 percent shooting since last playing Penn State. In their past 13 games, Gophers opponents are shooting only 32.2 percent from three-point range, compared to 35.8 percent in the first 18 games. Minnesota's adjusted defensive efficiency is the highest it has been all season at 37th nationally, according to analytics website

"We've had some great wins, that's why everybody thinks we're in the tournament," Pitino said. "Then we've had some duds. It's been a lot of the offense just hasn't been clicking. Our defense has slowly gotten better every single game. If we don't play great defense, we can't get out and run. That's been a problem in our losses."

If Minnesota's defense is enough to carry it Thursday, there's nothing to worry about on Selection Sunday. If not, a loss to a below-.500 team is probably not damaging enough to keep the Gophers out of the NCAA tournament.

But unexpected, bid-stealing at-large teams winning conference tournaments can make it tough for teams on the bubble.

One of the 36 at-large bids was taken Tuesday night when Saint Mary's upset No. 1-ranked Gonzaga in the West Coast tournament final. Washington is another team Pitino is watching in the Pac-12 tournament — not just because the Gophers beat them as one of their Quad 1 wins, but a Huskies loss would mean another team likely stole an at-large bid.

"A lot of things have to go in your favor," Pitino said. "When you're looking at all the bubble stuff, that's the key. But I still think we're comfortably in."