Given the turnover the Minnesota Golden Gophers experienced last offseason, nobody was quite sure what to expect for the Gophers this season. Minnesota was an NCAA squad last year, but the team would look considerably different this time around.
Unfortunately, things haven’t gone all that well. While the team has shown some positive signs, there’s no denying fans were hoping for more than a 14-16 overall record at the conclusion of the regular season.
Those underwhelming results put Minnesota in a tough position heading into this week’s Big Ten Tournament. The team has not shot of making the postseason unless it takes care of business this week. For the NIT, that likely means winning two or three more games. For the NCAAs, Minnesota will probably need to win the title this weekend.
So, can the Gophers get it done and extend the team’s season? Let’s take a look.
As the 12 seed, Minnesota has the undesirable task of opening up Big Ten Tournament play on Wednesday against 13th seeded Northwestern. It goes without saying, but nobody wants to play on the opening day of the Big Ten Tournament, as it requires five wins in five days to hoist the tournament title. Not exactly an easy task.
The B1G tourney field is set. pic.twitter.com/pV0b4p0nxl— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 9, 2020
Still, the opening round matchup looks entirely winnable. Minnesota is a better team than Northwestern in virtually every area and KenPom gives the Gophers 79 percent odds of winning. Even if you’re not a huge believer in advanced stats, those are pretty encouraging numbers.
If Marcus Carr and Daniel Oturu show up, Minnesota should be able to get past the Wildcats. Notably, the two teams faced off twice in the regular season with Minnesota winning both contests. The last game between the two featured an 83-57 win for the Gophers. The only real question is whether Minnesota will show up. If so, expect Minnesota to score a comfortable win.
-If They Advance
Should Minnesota take care of business on Wednesday, the Gophers would then face five seed Iowa on Thursday afternoon. It should go without saying, but the Hawkeyes are significantly more formidable than Northewstern. Minnesota would go from being a sizable favorite against Northwestern to a moderate underdog against Iowa.
From an on-court perspective, the game would likely come down to Oturu vs Luka Garza down low. They’ve been two of the best big men in the nation this year and each team relies extensively on their production to win games. Minnesota would also have a major challenge in slowing down Joe Wieskamp on the perimeter. Iowa swept the regular season series between the two, winning in blowout fashion at home in the first game and in a tight game on the road in the second meeting. Obviously, pulling out a win would be tough.
However, there are a few encouraging notes for the Gophers. To start, Iowa has been underwhelming over the last month or so. The Hawkeyes have lost three of the team’s last four games and have been downright mediocre for the last five or six weeks. Iowa is just 5-6 over the team’s last 11 games and is ranked 48th in team efficiency during that stretch. Conversely, Minnesota is ranked 16th over the same period of time.
Additionally, Minnesota would have the benefit of confidence and comfort, having played (and won) the day before. Iowa will be coming into its Thursday game ice cold after being off since Sunday. Playing back-to-back games will eventually wear you out, but it takes more than two games to do it. If Minnesota can hit the ground running and get Iowa down, perhaps they can sneak out the upset. With those factors in mind, it’s not too difficult to see Minnesota making it to Friday this week.
If Minnesota made it past Iowa, it would then face fourth seeded Illinois. And this is where things would get really interesting. Believe it or not, Minnesota is actually ranked above Illinois on KenPom right now. Yes, despite being seeded eight spots higher for the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois is actually is one spot lower than Minnesota on KenPom. It speaks to the craziness of this year’s Big Ten race.
And whether you believe in those rankings or not, they clearly suggest Minnesota has a reasonable chance of beating Illinois if they end up facing off on Friday. That doesn’t guarantee a win for the Gophers, but it certainly rejects an automatic loss. The biggest question will be how Minnesota deals with its fatigue at that point. By that point, Minnesota would be on its third game in three days.
After that, Minnesota would likely face Michigan or Wisconsin on Saturday. During the regular season, Minnesota went 2-1 against the Badgers and Wolverines. The Gophers are also only seven spots behind Wisconsin on KenPom at the moment. On paper, that doesn’t seem like an incredibly unfavorable matchup. Minnesota would then likely have to overcome Maryland or Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament title game, which would obviously be a major challenge in its own right.
It’s been a tough season for Gopher fans so far. The team has played at an NCAA Tournament level for large segments, but has fallen short against a brutal schedule and in the closing minutes of a number of games. It’s how a team ranked 29th on KenPom is under .500 heading into the postseason.
Still, Minnesota has a lot to play for this week. Three wins would likely get the Gophers into this year’s NIT and a fourth might even generate a bit of NCAA chatter. Minnesota also might have the most manageable path to Saturday I’ve ever seen for a team playing in the Wednesday slate of games. The Gophers are better than Northwestern, have played much better than Iowa as of late, and might even end up as a favorite against Illinois if the two teams met on Friday.
Even a potential semi-final appearance looks manageable as well. Minnesota would likely face Michigan or Wisconsin and the Gophers went 2-1 against those teams this season. That’s not a bad scenario for a team coming into a tournament seeded behind 11 others.
All told, it figures to be a lot of fun. And we’ll get to see if the Gophers can find some magic against a really challenging slate.