After an up-and-down regular season, the Minnesota Golden Gophers finished 19-12 overall and 8-10 in conference. Just short of the 20-win mark and the top half of the Big Ten, the Gophers are essentially the definition of "on the bubble".
Minnesota took care of business Sunday, handily defeating Penn State in Williams Arena, and the rematch will come sooner than expected. The 7th-seeded Gophers and 10th-seeded Nittany Lions face off again Thursday in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament, with the winner set to play the 2 seed, Wisconsin.
The Gophers' "magic number" right now is 2. Two more wins and they will be dancing.
Beating Penn State should not be an issue, but this is the Big Ten, and no upset will come as a huge surprise. D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier, two of the B1G's top 10 scorers, can get hot at a moment's notice. The backcourt combo can also keep pace with Minnesota's up-temp style of play.
That said, the Gophers are stronger inside with Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason. They have proven leaders in the Hollins duo, and well they just beat Penn State by 18. Expect the Gophs to make it to the second round for the border battle with Wisconsin.
Minnesota and Wisconsin split their season series, each winning on their home floor. The Badgers were on an 8-game winning streak until falling to Nebraska on Sunday. Given Wisco's resume, they would definitely be the favorite in this second round matchup.
The odds will tell you that Minnesota will breeze by Penn State and fall to a more-talented and deeper Wisconsin squad on Friday. In a rivalry game with two competitive teams though, anything can happen.
Rich Pitino will be hungry to get a tourney berth in his first season as head coach in Minneapolis. Finishing seventh in the conference was already a great feat for him, but a trip to the NCAA tournament would put this season over the top.
For Minnesota, it comes down to this: two wins and they're in. One win and they are praying for a spot on selection sunday. No win and they are spending March at home in the snowy Twin Cities.