Rachel Banham checked one long-sought goal off her list Monday, when the Gophers guard was named Big Ten player of the year. Thursday, when her team begins play at the Big Ten tournament, she will be gunning for another: locking up an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
A knee injury forced Banham to watch from the sidelines last year as the Gophers made their first NCAA appearance since 2009. Getting her a turn on that stage has been a primary goal — for Banham, and for her teammates and coaches — since she decided to return for a fifth season of eligibility. With the Gophers teetering on the bubble for the 64-team field, though, they probably will need a strong performance at the Big Ten tournament to fulfill Banham’s wish.
ESPN’s Charlie Creme, who predicts the women’s bracket, currently has the Gophers among the first four teams to be left out. Their RPI ranking stood at 75 on Wednesday, hurt by poor strength of schedule and only two victories over teams in the top 50.
Their final chance to polish their résumé comes this week, beginning with Thursday’s game against Northwestern in Indianapolis. If the Gophers do not win the Big Ten tournament and its automatic NCAA berth, it appears they must win at least a game or two, then hope the math and the selection committee’s opinions fall in their favor.
“We need to win,” said Banham, who averaged a record 30.5 points in Big Ten play. “We’re going to go into [the Big Ten tournament] with that mindset.
“Win or go home. Win or be done. We have to have that mindset. It’s really big for us.”
Coach Marlene Stollings is thinking the same way. When asked how many victories she believes the Gophers will need to secure an NCAA invitation, she declined to be specific.
“As many as we can get,” Stollings said. “I’m just going to leave it at that. We’re going to be greedy.”
The Gophers are 19-10 and finished fifth in the Big Ten, their highest placement since a tie for fifth in 2008-09. But a lackluster nonconference schedule and a late-season slide are obstacles on their tournament path.
In early February, the Gophers’ RPI was 87. A victory over No. 5 Ohio State helped them gain ground, but three defeats in their final four games — including Sunday’s 33-point rout at Maryland in the finale — limited their advance.
The Gophers have beaten only two teams in the top 50 of the RPI rankings, Ohio State (5) and Indiana (39). Schedule strength, victories over top teams and late-season success are all important factors in earning a tournament berth.
Following Monday’s release of the top-10 rankings by the NCAA women’s tournament selection committee, Creme wrote on espnW.com that “things continue to look grim” for the Gophers’ hopes of an at-large bid. On Twitter, he speculated that “a good showing” at the Big Ten tournament might be enough to get them in. He dismissed the idea, though, that Banham’s star power would carry enough weight with the selection committee to overshadow the team’s shortcomings in major criteria.
Should the Gophers defeat Northwestern, they will face No. 4 seed Indiana in Friday’s quarterfinals. That gives them the chance to make a strong impression. The other quarterfinal in the Gophers’ half of the bracket will pit Maryland against the winner of Thursday’s Iowa-Michigan game.
Stollings said the Gophers will focus on three areas at the Big Ten tournament: maintaining a high energy level, rebounding and playing consistent defense. Giving Banham her first and only chance to play in the NCAA tournament is a significant motivator, she added, and Banham’s teammates agreed.
“That’s huge for us,” guard Carlie Wagner said. “We really want to get Rachel there. She’s worked so hard and done so much for the program. It would be great to have her go out dancing.”
With the Gophers on the NCAA bubble, Banham said she and her fellow seniors — guards Shayne Mullaney and Mikayla Bailey — must set the tone. In addition to playing their best, she wants them to take on the task of keeping the team calm, focused and prepared.
She isn’t concerned about the workload. This season, Banham has accounted for 33 percent of the Gophers’ points, leads the team in rebounds (172) and steals (58) and is second in assists (114). Still, she will try to do even more in the Big Ten tournament, knowing the Gophers’ NCAA hopes may depend on it.
“I just really, really want to get in,” she said. “So I’m going to do everything I can.”