Golden Gophers 17-9 (5-8) vs. Northwestern 15-10 (5-8)
6:00 PM CST at Welsh Ryan Arena in Evanston, IL
TV: BTN Radio: 1500 AM
Welcome to Bubbleville, USA, more commonly known as Evanston, Illinois where the Minnesota Golden Gophers will play the Northwestern Wildcats in what should amount to a bubble elimination game. Both teams find themselves with 5-8 conference records and are precariously perched on the bubble, running out of chances to return to the dance in Minnesota’s case or finally get there in Northwestern’s.
A pair of 5-8 teams should really not be on the bubble, and that they are does not speak well of the modern state of college basketball. Don’t mistake either the Gophers or the Wildcats for a good team. They aren’t, as their conference records indicate. However, in modern college basketball teams do not have to be good to go to the NCAA tournament, and as last year’s final four showed, team’s don’t have to be good in the regular season to earn a trip to the final four.
When the NCAA expanded the tournament field a year ago to 68 teams, it all but guaranteed that at least eight mediocre teams would have the opportunity to participate in the appropriately named March Madness, where everything can and does happen. The Gophers don’t need to be considered subjectively good to make the tournament. The selection committee isn’t going to decide to only fill 62 of the 68 slots because the last six teams aren’t good enough. Minnesota just needs to better than the other teams competing for the tournament spots.
It continues to be more and more clear that the magic number to get into the tournament is eight Big Ten wins. Minnesota’s remaining schedule makes this a must win game, and it could also be considered a must win for Northwestern as well. If the Gophers lose in Evanston on Saturday, they would need to beat either Michigan State at home or Wisconsin on the road to get to that eight win mark. If the Wildcats lose, they would need to pick up a pair of road wins over the Big Ten cellar dwellers and beat either Michigan or Ohio State at home. This is hardly an easy task.
Since their last meeting, which Minnesota won handily, the Wildcats beat Nebraska, Illinois, and Iowa and had seemingly turned things around. However, they went 0-2 on their Indiana road trip to arrive at their 5-8 conference record. Reggie Hearn was the key player during their last five games, scoring in double figures three times behind excellent three-point shooting. The Gophers were able to keep Hearn in check at The Barn where he scored only eight points with five from free-throws.
Northwestern was never in the game in Minneapolis, and the Gophers had a 17 point lead at half-time that would only grow as the game went on. The Gophers held the usually good outside shooting Wildcats to 30% three-point shooting. The Wildcats weren’t much better from inside the three-point line or from the free-throw line where they went 8-20. Northwestern’s shooting will be much better at home and the Gophers will need to ratchet up their defense.
Northwestern’s defense remains awful, and last in the Big Ten allowing 1.12 points per possession in conference play. In their first meeting, the Gophers scored 1.12 points per possession against the Wildcats and shot 57% from the floor despite 3-12 three-point shooting. Minnesota was successfully able to find the open gaps in the occasionally confounding 1-3-1 zone defense that can cause a lot of turnovers but also yields a lot of wide-open shots. If the Gophers can keep their turnovers under control, they had only 12 in the first meeting, scoring should not be a problem.
The season is essentially on the line in Welsh-Ryan Arena. I’ll be there. The Barnyard will be there. Twitter tells me a lot of other Gopher fans will be there too. Hopefully the Gophers can somehow win another must-win, and prevent the need for a miracle for another week or two.