Gophers: 13-8, 4-5 in the Big Ten. Nine games to go. Lost four of their last five. Can things look bleaker?
It’s hard not to be discouraged after a season in which such high hopes have disintegrated into an abysmal pool of mediocrity. Results have fallen miles short of expectations, players have walked away from the team, easy games have been dropped, leads have been given away. The team is a living, breathing version of Murphy’s Law. Whatever could have gone wrong, has. The Big Dance seems to be, at this point, a pipe dream. Soon all of our conference counterparts will seem to be partying away their spring in the field of 65. But guess what?
It’s not a pipe dream.
With nine games to go in the season the Gophers still find themselves squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. And the road to the Dance is not as absurdly difficult as it might seem at first glance. Over the final nine games Minnesota hosts five and goes on the road to places like Penn State, Michigan, Illinois and Northwestern. Tough games, for sure, but were not talking death traps like walking into the Kohl Center in late February. These games are winnable. Here is the schedule for the stretch run:
- 2/6 @ Penn State
- 2/11 vs. Michigan
- 2/14 @ Northwestern
- 2/18 vs. Wisconsin
- 2/20 vs. Indiana
- 2/24 vs. Purdue
- 2/27 @ Illinois
- 3/2 @ Michigan
- 3/7 vs. Iowa
The Gophers also have great resume-building games to strengthen their case for consideration as they host both Wisconsin and Purdue at Williams Arena, where the team has dropped only one game all season: a nail-biter to Michigan State. We know they can show up to play at home, and a win over wither the Badgers or Boilermakers is not too much to ask.
There are a couple things that need to happen for Minnesota to get serious consideration for the tournament:
- Unless they beat Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin through the home stretch, the team has to win at least six of its final nine games. They basically need to finish 19-11 with two wins over two of the aforementioned three or 20-10 with a win over one. Going 20-11 without a win over either of those teams leaves the Gopher resume frighteningly thin, with only two good wins over Butler and Ohio State.
- Unless they sweep Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin, the team can NOT drop a game to either Penn State (RPI: 227), Indiana (RPI: 225) or Iowa (RPI: 118). Either of those would be considered a bad loss in the eyes of the committee, which would effectively destroy the Gopher season. The Indiana loss earlier still stings.
The Gophers have the 26th hardest schedule in the nation, which should become even harder when they face the Badgers and Boilers. Playing that tough of a schedule in a conference like the Big Ten means that 19 or 20 wins is a sort of magic number. The team doesn’t have to fork over 5 or 6 quality wins if it wants consideration. They just need to show that they take care of business over the teams they should beat, and slay a top team every once in a while.
The only “must-win” games that the Gophers will be in will be games against Penn State, Indiana and Iowa. Other games don’t have quite the weight that those against the conference scrubs do. That being said, the Gophers would do well to take a home game against Purdue or Wisconsin, but no single game is yet considered a must-win.
Consideration for the Tournament is not unattainable. In fact, the amount of home games and the relatively weak teams the Gophers have to face on the road allows them a great opportunity to get back on track. They are still in position to find themselves dancing in a month and a half, all they really need to do is take care of business at home and beat Penn State on the road. 19 wins with a Wisconsin/Purdue/Illinois win or 20 wins regardless gets them in. It’s really that simple. The path to redemption starts on Saturday.