The Gophers surprised many Big Ten followers by getting a five seed in the South region of the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Largely thanks to a solid RPI, Minnesota grabbed the conference’s second best seed. KenPom had the Gophers ranked 33rd in the country, trailing Wisconsin, Michigan and Purdue, but the selection committee has placed a higher emphasis on RPI in the past and appears to have done so once again.
Subjectively, and maybe on paper as well, the East and Midwest regions look like the toughest. However, each bracket can make a case and only once the games play out can we ultimately determine the most difficult. Upsets can quickly throw a region into chaos, as well as make a supposedly tough path considerably more manageable.
Let’s take a quick look at Minnesota’s path. Though they earned a higher seed, even getting out of the first round might be a challenge.
Round One: Middle Tennessee State
The Gophers drew Middle Tennessee State in the first round, which is a popular Cinderella pick. To date, Minnesota would be arguably Middle Tennessee’s best win of the season.
Most pundits love Middle Tennessee State; KenPom has them 48th overall. They check all the boxes on paper. They’re a small school that’s won 30 games (30-4 overall). They won both their conference regular season and conference titles and are currently on a 10-game winning streak. Earlier in the year, the Blue Raiders beat Vanderbilt, another tournament team, 71-48 at home and only lost to VCU by three (80-77). Oh, and last year they also upset top Big Ten team Michigan State in the opening round.
Middle Tennessee State has the experience edge and is probably one of the more consistent teams on both ends. The Blue Raiders are near the top-50 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
For the Gophers, the loss of Akeem Springs will have a big impact unfortunately. Richard Pitino played six guys in the team’s loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semi-finals, showing that the Gophers may be stretched thin this postseason. Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer logged all 40 minutes, while Amir Coffey was right there at 39.
Minnesota’s depth overall is an issue, particularly if foul trouble impacts anyone in the backcourt. Fatigue could also plague them, but the five day layoff will help.
Second Round & Sweet Sixteen
If the Gophers advance they’ll play the winner of Butler-Winthrop. Bulter’s favored in the game, but nobody’s quite sure how good they are. The Bulldogs have bad losses to Indiana State, St. John’s and Georgetown on their resume. On the flip side, Butler’s beaten Arizona, Cincinnati, Marquette (twice) and Villanova (twice).
In the Sweet Sixteen then, if things go to chalk, Minnesota would meet North Carolina, the number one seed. The Tar Heels are just better, and more explosive. The Gophers haven’t played anyone the caliber of North Carolina this season.
Minnesota dodged a slight bullet by not being in the lower half of the South. Earlier I said the East and Midwest might be the toughest regions, but I could argue the South too, particularly the lower half.
Good grief...Kentucky, UCLA, Cincinnati and Wichita State comprise four of the eight teams in that half. KenPom has those four among the top 22 teams in his ranking and the reality is Wichita State was decisively under-seeded this year.
Minnesota’s going to struggle in round one, even though it’s in Milwaukee. In theory it should be a home crowd. The Gophers haven’t been in the tournament recently, so in theory the fan base should be excited enough to make the (relatively short) 5-6 hour trip.
If Minnesota makes the Elite Eight, it probably would require beating Butler and North Carolina along the way and awaiting them would likely be Kentucky or UCLA. Nobody said the road would be easy.
Welcome to the 2017 NCAA Tournament.