The Minnesota Gophers had a perfect opportunity for a quality victory last night. Hosting the Ohio State Buckeyes on Tuesday, the Gophers had the ball at the end of regulation with a chance to knock off the ranked Buckeyes. They couldn't convert, though, and would go on to lose by two in overtime.
Minnesota came up short and it's starting to become the unfortunate trademark of second year coach Richard Pitino. Coming off of a NIT Championship there was hope that the Gophers would find their way back into the NCAA Tournament, a goal that was well within reach after an 11-2 start prior to Big Ten play. Now only three games into the conference season and Minnesota is in serious risk of digging a hole too deep to climb out of. The sudden drop shouldn't be a major surprise considering the best win Minnesota had out of conference was against either Georgia or Wake Forest, but most people expected Minnesota to get over the hump in 2015.
The reality is Minnesota looks exactly like they did last season. The Gophers had so many opportunities in 2014 to piece together a resume worthy of a NCAA bid. They had so many opportunities that the last comment was probably an understatement. In Minnesota's ten conference losses, five of them came by eight points or less. The Gophers also found a way to lose four games (at Michigan State, at Iowa, Illinois, at Ohio State) by double digits after heading into halftime with the lead. The Gophers dropped overtime games against Michigan State and Purdue, collapsed on the road in the second half repeatedly and simply blew every opportunity for a quality victory down the stretch. It shouldn't surprise you that the teams two non-conference losses include blowing a halftime lead against Arkansas and failing to capitalize against Syracuse.
This year has been more of the same. I don't think anyone expected Minnesota to knock off Louisville in the opener, but the Gophers inexplicably dropped a game to St. Johns in the Garden. Blowing another halftime lead, Minnesota squandered a 59-54 lead when they only made one field goal to close out the game over the last six plus minutes. Then the Gophers blew a double digit second half lead against Purdue, followed by a tough loss at Maryland thanks to only hitting two field goals during the first ten minutes of the second half. Then of course you have the Ohio State game, another blown opportunity for a quality victory.
The Gophers are now in a rough position because if they want to reach the NCAA Tournament they'll need to start winning and do it in a hurry. Hypothetically if the Gophers were to go 9-9 in conference play, that'd leave them with a 20-11 (9-9) record and would put them firmly on the bubble. At that record and the Big Ten looking relatively weak, that'd likely require Minnesota to make sure several of those conference wins came against the top of the Big Ten. Now just to get there the Gophers would need to close out the next two months with a 9-6 record, something that could prove to be difficult with Iowa (2x), Indiana, Wisconsin (2x) and Michigan State (away) left on the schedule. Anything worse than 9-9 in Big Ten play, considering the lack of quality non-conference wins, would likely net the Gophers a NIT bid unless they make a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament.
It puts Minnesota into a position where they need to start winning consistently and knock off some upper echelon programs. While Minnesota will benefit from facing Penn State and Nebraska twice, as well as still having dates with Rutgers, Illinois and Northwestern, winning those games won't be enough. With Maryland and Ohio State now off the remaining schedule, it leaves only a handful of teams (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana and Iowa) for quality victories. Factor in the difficulty of beating Wisconsin, only facing State in East Lansing and only having one crack at Indiana...and Minnesota might have considerable issues adding some resume defining wins once again. The Big Ten isn't at a point where a team can simply get to 20 wins and assume they'll get a bid, and the most likely scenario is that if Minnesota starts winning it's going to come against decidedly weaker opposition that won't really help their chances.
Of course the Gophers are still technically alive and in the running for a bubble bid, but their 0-3 start puts them into a position where there is very, very little room for error. After the first week and a half Minnesota has more or less put themselves in a place where they can't afford any slip ups in games they'll be favored in, while also having to take advantage of the few opportunities they have remaining for quality victories. What makes things even more frustrating is that the 11-5 (0-3) Gophers could just as easily be sitting at 14-2 (2-1) or at least 13-3 (1-2), both of which would have made the path to the tournament much easier.
Pitino's first season as the head coach of the Gophers was defined by "what ifs" and blown opportunities. Halfway through the 2014-15 season it's been more of the same for Pitino and company. It'll be interesting to see if Minnesota can get it turned around, but unfortunately history isn't on their side.