It’s been an interesting road this year for the Gophers, to say the least (then again, is it ever any different?). Left for dead after Trevor Mbakwe’s torn ACL, the Gophers actually won six games in a row directly following his departure from the roster, including two wins over BCS conference teams in Virginia Tech and USC. Minnesota then proceeded to drop its first four conference games, essentially erasing its accomplishments through the first 13 games of the season. Again, the Gophers were left for dead.
But being counted out has been the catalyst for Minnesota in the 2011-12 season, and with the odds stacked against them heading into a matchup with then-top 10 Indiana at Assembly Hall, the Gophers pulled the upset, winning the first of three straight conference games. The Gophers then coupled wins against Illinois and Nebraska with losses against Michigan State and – gulp – Iowa to get to where we are today – a 17-7 overall squad with a 5-6 conference record. We’ve seen the team rebound from the unthinkable – the loss of its best player – to planting itself squarely in the NCAA Tournament discussion.
Now that the Gophers are being taken seriously, the question remains – just how many wins will it take to get the team into the tournament as an at-large? The consensus is that it will take either eight or nine conference wins, which is all well and good. But which is it, eight or nine? The Gophers face a difficult final portion of the schedule, with five of its final seven games against teams currently in the Top 25. With wins at a premium heading down the stretch, having to win three games instead of four is a huge difference.
Living in the Gopher Nation bubble isn’t a healthy place to be. We’re a self-deprecating, cynical, unhappy legion of people who expect the worst at all times. That said, it’s hard for us to take a step back and look objectively at how we stack up against the rest of college basketball. After losing to Iowa there was a lot of, “oh no, the wheels have officially come off” and “the sky has completely fallen.” Instead, the Gophers retained their position in Joe Lunardi’s bracket despite the loss and still remain there as of his most recent iteration.
So, when were trying to think objectively about the Gophers chances of making it in as an at-large, it’s important to turn off our Gopher-vision. It isn’t as bad as we think it is.
- The Gophers had no bad losses in non-conference play and even picked up a couple of solid wins over Bucknell and South Dakota State. No, there were no wins over Top 25 teams, but wins over solid mid-majors serve to increase Minnesota’s RPI, which currently sits at 45.
- The Big Ten is one of the strongest conferences in the nation this year. In fact, Lunardi has eight B1G teams listed as “in” right now, which is second only to the Big East, which has nine. That said, conference wins in one of the best conferences in the nation are more impressive than conference wins in another conference.
- Three of Minnesota’s five conference wins have come over teams with an RPI in the top 45.
Now, those are only three bullets for the Gophers’ resume, but it’s a fairly solid resume for a team seeking an at-large bid, and would likely get them into the tournament if the season ended today. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. So we’re forced to look forward and see what the Gophers need to do to secure a bid.
In order to achieve eight wins, the Gophers need just three more wins. Easy enough, right? Unfortunately, they face Wisconsin twice, Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan State down the stretch in addition to Northwestern and Nebraska. With Northwestern and Nebraska marked as “should win”, that leaves one final game to take against one of the best teams in the conference. A tall order, yes, but that also means that if the Gophers are able to get three more wins, that means they will add another win against a team with an RPI in the top 25. With three more wins, that guarantees the Gophers finish with at least four wins over teams with a top 45 RPI. For comparison’s sake, two of the other bubble teams that the Gophers are fighting to overtake – Arizona and North Carolina State – have zero top-50 RPI victories. Four is a very solid number.
My main point is assuming the Gophers are “in” as of now (and the slim chance that the good mid-majors like Murray State win their conference tournaments), they basically have to hold serve the rest of the way to make it to the Big Dance. That means beating the teams they need to beat. Losing to Ohio State, Michigan State and, yes, even Indiana is okay, but they desperately need to win at Northwestern, at home against Northwestern and take one away from Wisconsin. Dropping one of those games means they need to steal one against the former three teams, which will certainly be difficult. Expanding the Gophers’ margin for error is the fact that they play the hardest teams at home in front of what should be a fairly raucous crowd. Of course, winning one or more of those games would be welcome in anyone’s eyes.
The Gophers still have plenty of work to do if they want to make it in as an at-large, but if they take care of business when they are supposed to, eight wins should be enough to get them in.