Everyone talks about the NCAA tournament bubble this time of year, but a better metaphor is probably a cliff. After losing a very winnable game against last place Illinois, the Golden Gophers are perched three short steps from the precipice. With each regular season loss, they get a step closer, and at step number three, they go over the edge, crashing into the NIT. A path to the NCAA tournament still exists, but it is fraught with danger.
The Gophers figure to be favored in the final game of the regular season against Penn State, but for that game to matter, they’ll have to beat a ranked team. Saturday’s game against the Ohio State Buckeyes might be their best chance for that season saving win. Minnesota lost to Michigan at home, even though Glen Robinson III was injured most of the game. They got shelled at Iowa, and it doesn’t seem likely that several players will grow several inches taller in the next few days. Against Ohio State though, there is at least a chance.
In the first meeting in January, Minnesota’s mediocre at best defense forced the Buckeyes into their third worst offensive performance of the season. Elliott Eliason looked like a capable center in that game. Deandre Mathieu was his occasionally brilliant self, and the Hollinses were absent in a game that somehow resulted in a 10 point win. If the Gophers can be 10 points better than the Buckeyes at home, it isn’t completely unreasonable that the Gophers could be one point better than Ohio State on the road.
Ohio State’s offense is still very suspect, and while Minnesota’s defense isn’t likely to dominate again, it should be good enough to give the Gophers’ offense a chance to win. The offense needs to show up though, much more so than it did against Illinois. The Buckeye offense is still one of the best in the country, and is the best in Big Ten play. In conference play, Ohio State forces the most turnovers, allows the lowest three-point shooting percentage, and forces the most turnovers. They also allow the second fewest three-point attempts. Inside, Ohio State is vulnerable, allowing the third highest two-point field goal percentage in the conference and the second most offensive rebounds.
The soft, interior underbelly of Ohio State’s defense was fully exposed in January as the Gophers made nearly 64% of their shots. Minnesota’s outside shooting was horrible and only made 3-14 three-point attempts. There weren’t many open outside shots, and the Gophers were patient enough to pound the ball inside instead of forcing heavily guarded shots from distance. It was the game plan the Gophers needed against Illinois, when they shot 25 three-pointers, instead of getting the ball inside. A concerted and successful effort to get the ball inside will give the Gophers a chance to erase the impact of the dreadful Illinois loss.
Having a chance to beat a ranked road team is one thing. Actually winning a road game against a ranked team for the Gophers would be Minnesota’s biggest win of the a season. They haven’t won in Columbus since 2005, and without a consistent offense or defense, they aren’t like to win on Saturday. It isn’t impossible though, so that is something.