It wasn’t just the fact that the Gophers lost to #6 Michigan State on Wednesday, with much of their season on the line – the Spartans had been playing very good basketball, were sporting the reigning National Player of the Week in Draymond Green and were on a six-game conference winning streak. Actually expecting a win was crazy, especially considering how Minnesota had been playing.
No, it was HOW they lost – in dramatic, aggravating and pathetic fashion. In fact, it was probably the most “Gopher” loss of the season, with the team giving its fans nothing to do but cover their eyes as they barfed away an eight-point lead with less than eight minutes to go in the game. In fact, you can basically pinpoint the time in the game when things completely turned around for the Gophers, which was the under-eight TV timeout. From there Minnesota went from attacking the Spartans, putting them on their heels and getting to the basket to playing completely and utterly scared, trying to drain the clock and hoping the game would end before Michigan State realized what was happening.
Unfortunately, the “playing not to lose” game plan that was implemented in the waning stages of the game did exactly that – lost the game. Much akin to the Prevent defense in football, teams that stop being aggressive open up the door to teams trying to claw their way back into the game, which can be a hellish combination and one that effectively ended any chance for the Gophers to obtain an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. A tired song we’ve been singing all season, Minnesota had every chance to close out the game, grab a big-time win at home and walk away with a signature victory. Instead, they freaked out after realizing they might have a chance to win, handed Michigan State the victory and walked off the court with their fifth loss in five games.
The collapse was stunning to the point that it didn’t seem real. How can a single team do the same thing so many times in so few games? These types of collapses date back to last season and have given the fan base zero reason to believe the the Gophers can close out any game. If you were actually sitting there watching the Gophers jump to an eight-point lead and thought, “we got this locked down” then my hat goes off to you. For the rest of us, it just validated that knot in our stomachs we get when Minnesota has a lead late in the game – the feeling that it’s too good to be true. For the most part it is.
So, where does that leave the Gophers and their quest for a post-season berth? The loss to Michigan State basically pushed them off the bubble, leaving them with no other option than running the table the rest of the regular season and making a deep push in the Big Ten tournament. Even with that type of run, Minnesota still wouldn’t be a lock as an at-large, but would merely be in the bubble discussion. Unfortunately, with the loss to the Spartans its looking like Minnesota will have to set its sights on securing an NIT bid, rather than punching their ticket to the Big Dance.
But is the NIT even a lock at this point? Absolutely not. As we saw in last year’s epic collapse, the Gophers went from being a possible Sweet Sixteen team to dropping the rest of their season and finishing without an invitation to any postseason tournament. If the current collapse continues it’s not hard to envision the team being passed up by the NIT selection committee, which would be a supreme disappointment, even with the loss of Mbakwe this season.
All that said and with everything that has happened to the team throughout February, it’s hard to believe that it’s still not over. However slim Minnesota’s tournament hopes are, the fact is that they still exist in some regard, though their margin for error has completely vanished. The Gophers must win essentially every game for the rest of the season with the exception of the Big Ten championship game. It’s an extremely tall task, but chances still remain, however daunting they may be. Wins over Indiana and Wisconsin would still look great, and closing out the season with three straight wins would still give the team eight wins in the conference and possibly vault them up to 7th in the conference. It’s extremely optimistic and highly unlikely, considering what we’ve seen so far, but with everything to play for and nothing to lose, perhaps we’ll actually see the team bear down, execute and attempt to turn around what has become yet another disappointing season for Gopher hoops.