The now luke-warm (as opposed to ice-cold) Golden Gophers start the last week of the Big Ten season on the road against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Gophers’ season is no longer on the line, thanks to season saving wins against Wisconsin and Indiana. With the season saved, the games only get more important. Meaningful March basketball has been sadly absent from Minnesota each of the last two seasons. To make up for that, we all get to suffer through at least four straight meaningful basketball games. Consider the Nebraska game a warm up.
The Golden Gophers have been dreadful on the road during the Big Ten season, with their only win against Illinois way back in January. If the Gophers are going to comfortably make the NCAA tournament and meet some of the lofty pre-season expectations, they’ll need to win a few games outside of The Barn. Nebraska is a good place to start. The Huskers are still dreadful, with the second worst offense in the Big Ten and third worst defense. They have only four conference wins, three of which were at home. The Gophers, at their lowest of lows, still managed to blow out Nebraska in the first meeting of the season.
There should be no overlooking the Huskers or Purdue this weekend with so much on the line. After two depressing Selection Sundays each of the last two seasons, and two horribly stressful Selection Sundays before that, a win over Nebraska could lead to some bucolic boredom when the NCAA tournament brackets are announced. Last weeks wins should have sealed their spot in the tournament field. Beating the Huskers would guarantee at least a 9-9 Big Ten record, and would give the committee no choice but to invite the Gophers to go dancing.
Nine conference wins would also go a long way in solidifying the Gophers as the sixth seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Their first round opponent would be injury-depleted Northwestern, or a rematch against Nebraska. No one wants to play Northwestern again, even if cosmic fate has decided that the Gophers must play the Wildcats in the Big Ten Tournament. However, the alternatives of Iowa, Purdue, or Illinois are much better teams. If the Gophers won their first Big Ten Tournament game, there is a reasonable chance they would play Michigan State or Wisconsin in the second round. The Gophers have victories over both teams, and not coincidentally, neither team has heard of the zone defense.
Suddenly, seeding might matter. If the Gophers manage to get to 11 Big Ten wins including the conference tournament, they could be looking at six seed in the NCAA tournament, not just the Big Ten tournament. The Gophers would have an actual winnable NCAA tournament game, and would be far from the dreaded potential round of 32 game against a number one seed. Losing to Nebraska would push the Gophers closer and closer to the 8-9 round of 64 game, and quick exit from the tournament.
Are we getting a bit ahead of ourselves? Of course we are. The Gophers need to take care of business so we can stop worrying about the bubble and start worrying about seeding and where the team will play. After what they have done to us this season, the Gophers owe it to us to win at least one of the next two games.