Last year I wrote that March is the season of redemption. This year, the Gophers need some redemption and then some. Even though they finished with the same Big Ten record and higher in the conference standings, they find themselves in a much worse position in terms of reaching the NCAA tournament.
Coming into this week, it seemed obvious that the Gophers would need to win at least two games in the Big Ten Tournament, and even three not might be enough depending on the always shifting bubble. Well, in a bit of good news, that bubble has been remarkably stable, and hasn’t shrunk one bit (St. Mary’s was already in the dance all you naysayers). Now, three wins should lock the Gophers into the NCAA tournament, assuming that those three wins come against the Penn State, Michigan State, and Purdue. A win against a team who upsets Purdue is less helpful.
The Gophers have never made it to the final game of the Big Ten tournament, but they have a decent chance this year. They know they can beat Penn State, and they lost to Michigan State and Purdue by a combined two points at home.
Penn State is playing their best basketball of the season, by far. However, they didn’t become the 11th seed in an 11 team tournament by some kind of cosmic accident. They still can’t rebound or play defense, and they still are a one man show with that one man unwilling or unable to trust his teammates (though I don’t blame him one bit).
Michigan State, whom the Gophers would play if they beat Penn State, narrowly escaped Williams Arena after the Gophers choked away one of their infamous 13 point leads. Minnesota won’t be intimidated, and will want to atone for what could have been a season changing victory over a top ten team. Chris Allen, who torched the Gophers for four three-pointers in the soul-crushing lost, has been suspended indefinitely for reasons ranging from lack of leadership to academics, or being the deciding health care vote in the house of representatives. We know the Gophers have trouble defending three pointers, and Chris Allen just so happens to be the best shooting Spartan.
Game three, no longer a must win if various teams continue to burst their own bubbles, would likely be against the very beatable Purdue Boilermakers. The loss of Robbie Hummel has made Purdue look very ordinary in a four point win at Penn State and positively 2009-Gopheresque in scoring only 44 points at Michigan State.
Of course, none if this matters if the Gophers don’t show up, a strange problem this season in must win games against seemingly beatable teams. Motivation shouldn’t be an issue this time around. Just finding themselves in a position to play themselves back into the NCAA tournament, considering all the off court issues and all missed chances, should be enough to bring out maximum effort from the Gophers. And if the Gophers have been paying any attention at all, they should have more than a little chip on their shoulders. Penn State has been the trendy upset pick in the Big Ten tournament. Damian Johnson was left off the Big Ten All-Defensive team, an indefensible decision considering he should have been the Defensive Player of the Year.
It still amazes me how close the Gophers were, despite all that happened on and off the court, to not just making the NCAA tournament, but securing a good seed. Another point at Northwestern and at Indiana to keep those games out of overtime would give the Gophers a very safe eight or nine seed. One more defensive stop against Texas A&M, Michigan State, and Purdue would have given the Gophers a top five seed and first and second round games as close as Milwaukee. So close yet so far away…but in March in college basketball, all things are possible. The conference tournament and potentially the NCAA tournament are the ultimate second chance.