A five-game winning streak puts the Gophers men’s basketball team in the best position in more than a decade to finish with a Big Ten record above .500.
That hasn’t happened since the 2004-05 season, when the Gophers went 10-6, earning a fifth seed in the Big Ten tournament — the highest seed for the U since the conference tournament began in 1998.
It’s not likely the Gophers will go undefeated the rest of the regular season, especially with road games left Wednesday at Maryland and March 5 at Wisconsin. But finishing 11-7 or 10-8 in the conference is realistic, which would mean a shot at a top-four seed and double bye in the Big Ten tournament March 8-12 in Washington.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino was asked last weekend about whether he looks religiously at the NCAA tournament projections. This was a day before his team’s 83-78 overtime victory Sunday against Michigan.
“I don’t look at us like we’re on the bubble,” said Pitino, whose team is now 20-7 and 8-6 in the Big Ten. “That mind-set is strange to me. We don’t think that way. We’ve got five games left. We got the Big Ten tournament. We’ve got a great RPI [No. 22]. We got a great strength of schedule [No. 16]. We’re excited about where we’re at.”
What the Gophers are focusing on, though, is a top-four seed in the Big Ten tournament. A first step toward that would be to pull off an upset Wednesday against the No. 24 Terrapins (22-5, 10-4) in College Park, Md. That isn’t so far-fetched.
The Gophers are 4-4 in Big Ten road games this season, tied for the most conference victories away from home since 2005. They lost 85-78 against Maryland on Jan. 28 at Williams Arena, but they did so after squandering a 12-point lead. The Terrapins are in the Big Ten title hunt with Wisconsin and Purdue, but they’ve proven to be vulnerable at home. Nebraska beat Maryland 67-65 on Jan. 1 at the Xfinity Center.
If Pitino’s team sees its winning streak end Wednesday, it would need to finish the home schedule at least with wins against Penn State and Nebraska to stay on track for a top-four seed.
The Nittany Lions will be looking to sweep the Gophers for the second straight season. The Cornhuskers have won four of the past five meetings with Minnesota. These are the two most winnable conference games left for Pitino. But they’re certainly not a given, considering the history and how unpredictable the Big Ten has been this season.
Let’s just say Minnesota won at least three of the next four games, maybe even at Wisconsin for the first time since 2009.
The Gophers would finish 11-7 in the Big Ten and 22-8 overall. That probably would be a top-six seed or higher in the NCAA tournament. But not necessarily a top-four seed in the Big Ten tournament.
Minnesota still would need to finish with a better Big Ten record than Michigan State and the same or better conference record than Northwestern. The Spartans own the tiebreaker over the Gophers after a season sweep. But the Gophers have the tiebreaker over the Wildcats after winning their only meeting.
There’s a scenario where the Gophers can even go 2-2 in the last four and still earn a No. 4 Big Ten tourney seed. That’s only if Michigan State and Northwestern either both lose their last four or three of their last four games. Seems unlikely.
Tournament projections from ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and several others have the Gophers ranging from a No. 6 to No. 8 seed.
“I don’t have Minnesota on the bubble,” CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm said Monday. “I’m not worried about Minnesota. Ask me if they lose the next three.”