It would take a miracle for either Northwestern or Minnesota to get into the NCAA tournament. Four wins in four days for either team and they're in.
Only one team has ever played in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament and won it all (Iowa in 2001). Northwestern and Minnesota both hope Thursday's game is the first step to becoming the second.
The odds are stacked against them. Sure, the winners of the 8-9 game can beat the 1 seed in the next round. That has happened four times in thirteen chances (the last was Ohio State over Wisconsin in 2003). And yes, although the 8 and 9 seed have both been to the finals once (the last being the aforementioned 2003 Buckeyes), they have never won the whole tournament.
The winner of the Northwestern and Minnesota game on Thursday will most likely play in the NIT. I am not an NIT bracketologist, but I would think the loser will get an invite as well. What the loser won't get to do is go to sleep Thursday night and still have a shot (statistically insignificant as it is) at the 2011 NCAA Division I National Championship.
All of this talk about seeds and chances and championships is premature and a little ridiculous. The Cats and Gophers are going to have to just concentrate on each other, as this preview will from here on out.
The Northwestern Wildcats should come into this game well rested. They haven't played since last Wednesday's victory over Minnesota at home. Bill Carmody's team had a 7-11 conference record with their best wins coming against Michigan and Illinois. They have mostly taken care of the worst teams in the conference and lost to the top teams. There wasn't too much expected of Northwestern this year (both preseason polls I have seen had them at seventh), and they have delivered.
The Wildcats are led by Juice Thompson and John Shurna, both of whom were named to the All-Big Ten third team by the coaches. Thompson has averaged 15 points and 4 assists per game from the point guard position and Shurna scored almost 17 points per game. Drew Crawford averages 12 points and Luka Mirkovic has a tendency to raise his arms and make an odd hand gesture or two after hitting an awkward-looking three.
Minnesota has had a much different path this year. As January was coming to a close, the Gophers were ranked #18 in the country. As the season came to a close, they were in a free fall. Minnesota lost nine out of their last ten games and can't seem to catch a break. In their last game, they had a late lead at home against Penn State, but couldn't make a shot to win it at the end.
On paper, it seems like Minnesota should be better. Blake Hoffarber is a good outside shooter and leads the team in scoring. Trevor Mbakwe led the Big Ten in rebounding and is a solid defender. Ralph Sampson III has averaged 2 blocks a game over the course of the season. The main reason that Minnesota can't seem to win anymore is the absence of Al Nolen. Without Nolen, the team lacks a true point guard and has forced Hoffarber to play out of position. Devoe Joseph's decision to transfer in the middle of the season has helped turn a promising season into a trainwreck.
Last Time Out
Northwestern beat Minnesota on Senior Night in Evanston last Wednesday. Minnesota held Northwestern to only 25 first half points, and opened up a ten point lead in the second half. Northwestern came back behind a career-high 18 points from Alex Marcotullio. Juice Thompson, who finished with 18 points as well, hit a couple of clutch threes with only a few minutes left to help seal the Wildcat victory.
Minnesota played well during the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, but Northwestern finally started hitting some shots in the second half. A ten point lead turned into an eleven point loss when the Gophers couldn't answer Northwestern's run. Trevor Mbakwe had 14 points and 12 rebounds, but Blake Hoffarber was only 1-5 from behind the arc and finished with only 5 points.
There has been some talk about Al Nolen possibly being able to play in this game, but I would be surprised if he risks re-injury to play Thursday. Even so, I think Minnesota is due for something good to happen. The logical part of my brain wants to pick Northwestern, but I have a weird feeling about this one. Gophers by 3
BTT Round 1, Game 1
Thursday, March 10 2:30 ET
Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana
ESPN2 (Dave O'Brien and Dan Dakich)