With so many key players departing last offseason, few knew what to expect out of the Minnesota Golden Gophers coming into this season. However, after the hot early start, most were hoping for a nice seed in March. Unfortunately, the wheels came off in mid-January and the Gophers now find themselves sitting at 13-14 overall and well outside the bubble heading into this week’s Big Ten Tournament.
But can the Gophers turn things around and extend the team’s season? Let’s take a look.
As the 13 seed, Minnesota has the undesirable task of opening up Big Ten Tournament play in the slate of games on Wednesday afternoon against 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.
_________ will be cutting down the nets Sunday? pic.twitter.com/umsMb9qEoV— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 8, 2021
Still, the opening round matchup looks manageable, as KenPom narrowly favors Minnesota against the Wildcats. And while Northwestern just recently beat the Gophers, no two games are ever the same and Minnesota does still have a better overall resume than the Wildcats. Fans will simply have to hope the February 25th loss was an aberration.
It’s also important to remember that the Big Ten Tournament is a unique event and regular season results don’t necessarily mean much once things get started. Like the NCAAs, it’s a single-elimination format where things are decided in the blink of an eye. And that’s good news for the Gophers, who have been disastrously bad over the last month or so. Every team shows up with a clean slate, for better or worse.
The matchup itself will almost certainly be decided in the backcourt. Marcus Carr has been the key to Minnesota’s team all season, so getting a big game for him will be key. Additionally, Boo Buie has been playing really well for the Wildcats in recent weeks, so slowing him down will be vital. If those two things happen, Minnesota is likely moving on to Thursday.
-If They Advance
Should Minnesota beat Northwestern on Wednesday, the Gophers would then move on to face five seed Ohio State on Thursday afternoon. Given Ohio State’s overall record (18-8 overall) and its advanced metrics (seventh on KenPom), there’s little debating a win here would be significantly more challenging for the Gophers than Wednesday’s matchup. Ohio State is almost certainly going to be favored by double-digits before tip.
From an on-court perspective, there’s no arguing Ohio State is a better team than Minnesota. The Buckeyes have a high-powered offense and two of the best players in the league in EJ Liddell and Duane Washington. Add in a handful of upperclassmen around them and it’s easy to see why Ohio State is sitting in the top 10 in the weekly polls. The truth is there’s no clear reason to pick Minnesota in this game, especially considering the team’s recent struggles.
With all of that said, it isn’t a hopeless task. Minnesota beat Ohio State in the first meeting between the teams in December and would have the advantage of already being warmed up before Thursday’s game. The Gophers would be confident and comfortable, having played (and won) the day before. Meanwhile, Ohio State will be ice cold, having been off since Saturday afternoon. 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 Ohio State down early, perhaps they can sneak out the upset.
If Minnesota makes it past Ohio State, it would then face four seed Purdue. This is where the Gophers would really start needing some magic. Not because the Boilermakers are substantially better than the Buckeyes, but because you’re now asking the team to pull off two substantial upsets in a row. That’s just not something you can reasonably expect from a team. However, the teams did split the regular season series and the win over the Boilermakers is really the only thing Minnesota’s done in two months, so that has to count for something.
After that, Minnesota would likely have to get through Michigan on Saturday and either Illinois or Iowa for the Big Ten Tournament title on Sunday. Those potential matchups might be even tougher than the ones we’ve already described.
A few weeks ago, Minnesota was sitting in great shape to make this year’s NCAA Tournament. The Gophers had a handful of elite wins, no bad losses, and were coming up on a really manageable slate to close the season. Everything seemed to be lining up nicely.
Unfortunately, that’s when things went sideways.
Minnesota didn’t just struggle down the stretch. The Gophers have lost seven straight and 10 of the team’s last 12 games. And considering one of the wins came against Nebraska at home, it’s hard to feel great about anything that’s happened in the last two months. As a result, Minnesota now finds itself well outside of NCAA consideration. It’s going to take a truly remarkable effort for the team to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.
The good news is Minnesota has a manageable first round matchup and has wins over each of its projected opponents on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. That’s not exactly the worst case scenario for a team playing in one of the Wednesday games. It’s a tall task, but we’ll see if Richard Pitino can find some March magic.