So here the Gophers are: 5-8 in the conference, fresh on the heels of a shellacking at the hands of Indiana but with a three-game winning streak (and three of four) still fresh in minds.

Is the NCAA tournament in the picture? Is Minnesota in the conversation?

Right now, the Gophers prospects look very slim. But with five games remaining, the team is starting the talk.

"We have not talked about the NCAA tournament at all this year," coach Richard Pitino said in a news conference on Tuesday. "I know it surprises people but we haven't. But we talked about it yesterday ... we've got four seniors who play substantial minutes who want to go to an NCAA tournament so I know that's on their minds."                                                                                                                 

One of those seniors is Andre Hollins, who has certainly been playing like he's got dreams of the Big Dance on his brain. In the last eight games, Hollins has led the team in scoring seven times and is averaging 21.3 points and 4.4 rebounds. It has, without a doubt, been the best all-around stretch of his career, as he keeps one eye on its finish.

"It's on our minds a lot, especially since we know last year we were that close to making it," Hollins said. And especially our seniors... we all experienced the NCAA tournament. We know what it takes and we know what it's like to play in there. It's an unbelievable environment.  I want to leave playing my best basketball and playing in the NCAA tournament.

"At the beginning of the season, you don't really think about this time, but you know, it's fast approaching. I'm just going to cherish every moment of it. I see the big picture but I'm taking it one game at a time, one practice, one game at a time and trying to give it my all each day so at the end I know I gave it my all. Hopefully it will result in an NCAA tournament berth."

Last year, the Gophers fell just off the tournament bubble after putting up an 8-10 conference record and winning just one game in the Big Ten tournament. But even though Minnesota is just one win off from its record through this point last season (5-8 now compared with 6-7 then), the Gophers' strength of schedule isn't at all similar. Last season, the Gophers landed in the top ten nationally. This year, after getting crushed 90-71 at Indiana, Minnesota sits at No. 82.

At this point, with the Gophers currently tenth in the Big Ten standings -- in what has been an overall disappointing year for the league -- Minnesota might have to win out to be considered. That would include a victory at Michigan State and a pair vs. overwhelming favorite Wisconsin -- which would account for the only two ranked wins the Gophers have on the year.

The formula is a bit overwhelming.

"I think the biggest thing is you can't overlook tomorrow," Pitino said, meaning Northwestern (8 p.m. BTN). "This team came in and beat us last year.  We need quality wins and we've got games up on our schedule, quality wins, tough opponents ... we've got opportunities ahead but we cannot overlook Northwestern."

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