In a home outing against Iowa last night the Gophers saw their deficit blossom to 17 points after Peter Jok made a three with 16:07 remaining. With things getting out of hand a lot of people started to assume Iowa was about to seal the deal when the Gophers made an inexplicably ferocious come back. After trailing most of the night Minnesota eventually built a four point lead before allowing the Hawkeyes to go on a 6-0 run to regain the lead. After a Jarrod Uthoff jumper and a Minnesota layup just after the buzzer, the Gophers lost their fifth game in a row, falling to 11-7 and 0-5 in the Big Ten.
It wasn't supposed to be like this for Minnesota. I mentioned this last week, but Minnesota's 2013-14 season was defined by losing winnable games and eventually having to settle for a NIT bid. After winning the NIT this past spring the Gophers were hoping to use their postseason success as a launchpad in Richard Pitino's second season. The non-conference slate went about as expected for Minnesota, losing two games to talented opponents in Louisville and St. John's while beating a who's who of middling to cupcake level opposition.
Then the Big Ten season started.
Up 13 versus the Boilermakers in the second half the Gophers would get outscored by 20 points before eventually cutting the final score to 68-72. Versus Maryland the Gophers fell apart in the second half, seeing a one possession deficit blossom into a double digit deficit thanks to a ten minute span where they made two field goals. Against Ohio State the Gophers missed the second free throw in a tied game and then bricked a jumper at the end of regulation, eventually falling in overtime. Last weekend Minnesota had a fourth winnable game, leading the Wolverines by 9 with less than eight to go before only making two field goals the last 9:02 of regulation. Then we had last night's Iowa fiasco, a near blowout that turned into a likely win and back to a heartbreaking loss. Typical to what Minnesota fans have dealt with the last year and a half.
That leaves us with today's question: Does Minnesota even have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament?
The case for Minnesota still being alive
The past few weeks have been rough for the middle of the Big Ten. Teams like Minnesota and Illinois have added some critical losses while other teams (Purdue, Nebraska) are dealing with serious holes from the non-conference season. The one thing these teams need to remember if they want to remain optimistic is the fact that last season Nebraska was sitting at 9-9 and 1-5 in conference and had only one quality win (Ohio State). The Cornhuskers, seen as a bottom feeder late in January, would close out the regular season going 10-2 and somehow end up in the NCAA Tournament. If Nebraska can do it surely a team like Minnesota or Illinois can find a way, can't they?
Of course that optimism will have to carry Gophy a long way as their non-conference season doesn't exactly help things much. With their best wins coming against Georgia and Wake Forest, Minnesota will need to add some quality victories in Big Ten play. Of course two of the team that would pretty up the resume, Maryland and Ohio State, are already off the remaining schedule, while Minnesota also has a costly loss they won't be able to avenge against Michigan.
The schedule does finally soften a bit with Rutgers, Nebraska (2x), Illinois, Penn State and Purdue coming up, but even winning almost of all of these games will mean nothing if Minnesota can't add some marquee wins down the line. There are five such chances remaining on the schedule, with four of those being on the road (Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State). The only remaining home game that would look awfully nice on the resume? A Thursday night game against Wisconsin in March, one that might be a bit out of the Gophers league.
The case for Minnesota already being out of NCAA contention
Well it appears I already dabbled into this category a bit prematurely, but that's how big of a mess Minnesota is in. While the schedule does soften for the immediate future, the 0-5 start, lack of any quality wins and a non-conference SOS outside of the top 220 means Minnesota needs to beat good teams, not simply pad their record with so-so wins. While a schedule heavy on the likes of Nebraska, Rutgers and Illinois provide plenty of winnable games, they also will do nothing to move the needle in favor of Minnesota.
The last month of the season does have plenty of chances, but with so many coming on the road it would require the Gophers to do a quick 180 and dramatically improve their play. That seems unlikely based on what they've done so far this season (as well as last year). If the Gophers can get things rolling throughout the next few weeks and go 4-2 over the next six games, it'd still leave them at an unimpressive 15-9 (4-7) and unless they can knock off Wisconsin twice and take care of business everywhere lese they're probably looking at a best case scenario of reaching the NIT.
So what does it mean for Minnesota?
It's only the middle of January and it has to be frustrating considering Minnesota had a chance in all five conference losses, but the season is practically ruined for Pitino and company. With absolutely nothing worthwhile going for them right now (only a mere three wins versus teams in the top 150 RPI) and already having five conference losses, the question becomes if Minnesota can stop the bleeding quick enough to get back to any level of postseason play. There's a real possibility Minnesota could only win four or five Big Ten games this season and that could mean nothing all together.
The middle of the pack in the Big Ten has been one giant cluster and I think the next four games will more or less determine if Minnesota could carve out a spot in the middle and work towards a NIT bid. Of course if they continue to drop close games then the Gophers could fade to the bottom of the pack, with some serious questions as to how Pitino has struggled to take advantage of the talent at hand and just why Minnesota can't win a close game to save their lives.
As the winter rolls on more Big Ten teams will fall out of the postseason race but it looks like Minnesota is the first bubble team to fall from relevancy. The only question is how long their free fall into the Big Ten abyss will continue.