The Gophers men’s basketball team is in its best position in years to make the NCAA tournament.
Fourth-year coach Richard Pitino wants his players to understand what’s at stake.
With eight regular-season games left — five at home — the Gophers (16-7, 4-6 Big Ten) have an opportunity to solidify their tournament chances in the final Big Ten stretch, starting Wednesday night against Iowa (14-10, 6-5) at Williams Arena.
“That’s what I’m trying to get everybody in this town to realize,” said Pitino, whose team ended a five-game losing streak Saturday with a much-needed win at Illinois. “After 23 games, this is the best shape that we’ve been in at this point. And my first two years, we were close to making the NCAA tournament, but we didn’t break through. This is the best shape we’ve been in with five home games left.”
Just last week, the Gophers were on an all-too-familiar downward spiral with a losing streak that included four losses that came down to the last few possessions. But nearly every NCAA tournament projection still had the Gophers solidly in the field of 68, ranging from a No. 7 to a No. 10 seed.
CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm, who has Minnesota as a No. 7 seed in his updated bracket, said there was no reason to “jump on the panic button.”
The Gophers’ Rating Percentage Index (RPI) is No. 25 and their strength of schedule (SOS) is No. 12 nationally. That ranks fourth among Big Ten teams in RPI, behind only Wisconsin (17), Purdue (20) and Maryland (22). Their schedule is third-strongest among Big Ten teams, behind Nebraska (No. 1 nationally) and Illinois (11).
“I think Minnesota in general is in reasonably good shape,” Palm said. “If they would’ve lost to Illinois they would’ve had a problem. But it’s not like they lost five in a row to Rutgers. They’ve got part of their schedule coming up that they should be able to get some momentum.”
Palm had been honest about Minnesota’s dire chances at making the NCAA tournament in the past when it was on the bubble. But the Gophers are not on the bubble in projections from Palm, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, SI.com, Sporting News and others.
A significant factor is avoiding bad losses.
Falling 52-50 to Penn State on the road Jan. 14 is Minnesota’s only blemish so far after 23 games. The Gophers let that one slip away after leading the Nittany Lions by 10 points at halftime.
“Their [conference] losses are mostly excusable,” Palm said. “When you start losing to teams like Iowa at home, Rutgers anywhere, then that’s when you start to question teams.”
Minnesota’s other Big Ten losses are to Michigan State twice, Wisconsin, Maryland and at Ohio State. Palm isn’t overly impressed with the Gophers’ nonconference schedule. But they had quality wins against potential NCAA tournament teams in Texas-Arlington and Arkansas. Their only loss was at Florida State, a top-10 team at one time.
“You still have to take care of business against the Illinois, Iowas and Rutgers of the world,” Palm said. “If you do that, then you’ll probably be fine. If you do better than that, then you could be a pretty good seed.”
When the Gophers opened the season 15-2 and earned a national ranking for the first time in four years, players talked about goals of reaching the program’s first NCAA tournament since 2013.
A little doubt crept in during the losing streak, but the Gophers are again focusing on what they need to do to get in.
“End of the season, we really want to finish out strong,” freshman guard Amir Coffey said. “Especially with the [losing] streak we just had. We’re just trying to come out on the other side of things. These last [eight games] can be a really good résumé builder for us; improve our record, so we can get a higher seed for the tournament.”