Six games left. Six games for the Gophers to show that they belong in the NCAA Tournament in Richard Pitino’s first season as head coach. Will they find themselves in the final 68 come Selection Sunday? It would be a huge coup for Pitino, whose expectations coming into the season ranged from being picked to finish last in the Big Ten (thanks Brent Yarina!) to coming in around 7th in the conference. Not particularly high praise. Instead, Pitino has molded his Island of Misfit Toys into a team that not only beat Wisconsin and Ohio State, but put scares into Michigan, Michigan State and Syracuse. Of course, the same Minnesota team has dropped games to Purdue, Northwestern and Nebraska, making it a true Jekyll and Hyde situation.
So what’s the current situation? By all accounts, if the season ended today the Gophers are squarely in the tournament. In fact, according to Joe Lunardi, they aren’t even on the bubble as they come in at an 11-seed. That’s an important distinction, because that means the Gophers merely need to hold serve the rest of the way to make it into the field. That means beating the teams they need to beat. Unfortunately, that’s been easier said than done so far this year.
29-Vcu, 30-Mass, 31-NMex, 32-Unc, 33-Smu, 34-AzSt, 35-GWash, 36-OkSt, 37-Xav, 38-Cal, 39-Stan, 40-Tenn, 41-Colo, 42-Minn, 43-Gtown, 44-Prov.
— Joe Lunardi (@ESPNLunardi) February 15, 2014
The remaining games aren’t particularly tough, but do represent enough challenges that the margin for error is getting thinner and thinner. In essence, the Gophers have three “should win” games in their final six games, with three others in the “would be nice to win” category. What are they?
- @ Northwestern, RPI: 97 (winnable!)
- vs. Illinois RPI: 77 (winnable!)
- @ Ohio State, RPI: 18 (would be nice)
- vs. Iowa, RPI: 34 (would be nice)
- @ Michigan, RPI: 13 (would be nice)
- vs. Penn State, RPI: 105 (winnable!)
As you can see, the six remaining games are starkly different. Three of the games come against some of the lowest-rated teams in the B1G, while the other three come against some of the highest. That means a couple different things, namely that the Gophers completely control their own destiny, and can only play themselves out of a spot at this point. But they also have a slight margin for error. A loss at Northwestern hurts, but it’s not the end of the world. It does, however, mean that they probably need to pick up a win over OSU, Iowa or Michigan. A tough task, but not impossible. Of course, in this 3-3 scenario, it presents a fun little finale against Penn State at home to end the season. Imagine the horrors!
Why does going 3-3 get them into the tournament with no questions asked? Well, first off the Gophers have a great profile at this point, even though they’ve dropped some stupid games. Their current RPI is 38, they’ve played the fourth-hardest schedule in the nation, have five RPI top-100 wins, and have yet to take a bad loss. Plus, even though the teams have beaten up on each other, the Big Ten is still considered one of the two best conferences in the nation. That reflects positively on the Gophers for seeding purposes.
So, going 8-10 in the conference should get the Gophers in the tournament, no questions asked. But what about if they go 7-11? That’s when it gets a little hairy. First, it would mean that they dropped 8 of their final 11 games of the season, which doesn’t look good. But it also largely depends on WHO they beat. A win over Michigan basically seals the deal no matter what they do (short of losing all three of their “should win” games). But a loss to Penn State and no other noteworthy wins would be brutal and would force them to do some work in the Big Ten tournament.
So, here’s the rundown as I see it:
- 9-9 finish – IN, probably as a 8-9 seed
- 8-10 finish – IN, regardless of BTT finish, probably as an 11-seed
- 7-11 finish – BUBBLE, largely depends on who they beat down the stretch. No top-50 wins means they need a win or two in the BTT.
None of this is a science, but the fact that Joe Lunardi doesn’t seem to think the Gophers are on the bubble at this point is comforting, and that Minnesota controls its own destiny at this point is nice. Of course, this also means that an up-and-down team needs to take care of business down the stretch, which hasn’t exactly been their calling card this season.