Richard Pitino probably wouldn't have believed it if someone told him a couple of months ago that he might be coaching his last game with the Gophers basketball program in this week's Big Ten tournament.
Not when the Gophers were nationally ranked for five consecutive weeks.
Not when their school-record-tying five victories over ranked teams in a season included blowing out Michigan in January, a Final Four contender and the eventual Big Ten regular-season outright champion.
Pitino's teams have suffered late-season tailspins before, but never have they fallen from those heights.
Now the buzz surrounding the 13th-seeded Gophers (13-14) is more about their coach's uncertain future than if they can make a run in Indianapolis, starting Wednesday night vs. Northwestern.
"I'm reminded every two seconds that I'm not going to be back here," Pitino candidly said Tuesday. "I still have hope. I still believe, but I'm a human being. I certainly understand that is an option."
After the season, Pitino expects to meet with athletic director Mark Coyle about if he'll be back for his ninth year with the Gophers. Pitino, though, was even more transparent Tuesday about understanding he could be replaced by another coach.
Speculation already has started with San Diego State's Brian Dutcher, the son of former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher, being a potential candidate if Pitino is dismissed.
"That's challenging to deal with," Pitino said on hearing that speculation. "When we were healthy, we were a very good team. I've never tried to make excuses. … It's not fun. But you keep a positive attitude. You continue to coach your guys to the bitter end."
The end for Pitino and the Gophers this season could come Wednesday, but they would play fifth-seeded Ohio State on Thursday and fourth-seeded Purdue on Friday if they continued to advance at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Gophers need a few victories just to qualify for the NIT.
Pitino, who has a 140-122 record in eight seasons at Minnesota, won't be able to reach his third NCAA tournament unless the Gophers can win their first Big Ten tournament title ever. They lost in the conference tournament finals under Tubby Smith in 2010.
"It's our mentality to win every single game we can to come home with a championship," said point guard Marcus Carr, who was named All-Big Ten second team by media. "We're not done. We're not really listening to the outside noise. Of course, that's what going on, but we're not paying too much attention."
The Gophers are on a seven-game losing streak and have dropped of 11 of 14 games. They're as decimated by injuries as any team Pitino ever, but dangerous enough to beat anyone when at full strength.
Among the U's wins were over Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue — all projected NCAA tournament teams. But all of those marquee victories were with center Liam Robbins and guard Gabe Kalscheur healthy.
Pitino announced Tuesday that Robbins (sprained ankle) and Kalscheur (broken finger) were out vs. Northwestern and probably the entire tournament. Robbins, the Big Ten's top shot blocker, had been a game-time decision the past two games, including Saturday's 77-70 overtime loss vs. Rutgers to end the regular season.
Instead of getting a much-needed boost like the Gophers had hoped with the 7-foot Robbins' inside presence, they will have to keep their season going without him in Indianapolis.
The Gophers enter the postseason tied for their worst seed since the Big Ten tournament made its debut in 1998. The lowest seed to win the conference tournament was Michigan as an eighth seed in 2017.
The only other year Minnesota's program was seeded 13th was in Pitino's eight-win season in 2015-16, which ended with an abysmal 85-52 loss to Illinois in the first round in Indy.
Pitino survived that debacle to coach the Gophers the following season to his first NCAA tournament in 2017, but even his players sense an early exit this week could mean the end of their coach's tenure.
"I understand it's a business," forward Brandon Johnson said. "It would be sad to see Coach Pitino go. The guy who brought me in, the guy who motivates us every day to strive to be better."