ST. PAUL — On face value, the Gophers men’s basketball team’s 12-11 record, including a 6-7 mark in Big Ten play, doesn’t look like it’s enough to make the NCAA tournament this season.
ESPN and CBS Sports indeed have Minnesota outside the 68-team field in their latest projections this week. ESPN has the Gophers among its “first four out.”
But the Gophers can play their way into the field if they have a winning record in their final seven regular-season games. They also will have one guaranteed game in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis from March 11-15.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at first declined to get into any talk about a supposed magic number of wins necessary for the team to make March Madness.
“It’s not good radio if I tell you that we are just going to focus on one day at a time and we don’t talk about anything else and we don’t look at anything else,” Pitino told host Mike Grimm on Pitino’s weekly radio show on KFAN.
But with Selection Sunday more than a month away on March 15, Pitino soon went there.
“Now from a more fun way to look at it, I do think that if you win — as crazy as it sounds — if you win four of your next seven and beat the right teams, you could get it,” Pitino shared.
That would put the Gophers at 16-14 overall and 10-10 in the Big Ten, which is considered the best conference in the nation this season. Many bracketologist think the league could get more than eight teams in the field. The conference set a record with eight teams in last season.
“It’s changed,” Pitino said. “It’s just a different deal.”
One factor is the Gophers have the best strength of schedule in the nation, according to ESPN’s BPI. Other schedule rankings are also high on Minnesota.
“(The selection committee is) trying hard to get teams to schedule like that, and I think they want to reward if they do that,” Pitino said.
The NET ranking, the second-year primary tool used to determine the NCAA field, has the Gophers at 40th in the country, up two spots since a 83-77 loss at No. 22 Penn State on Saturday.
Pitino is more declarative if the Gophers win five of their final seven games. “I would be surprised if you are not all but a lock, as crazy as that sounds at 17 (wins),” he said.
The final stretch starts at noon Sunday against No. 21 Iowa (17-7, 8-5 Big Ten) at Williams Arena. The Hawkeyes demolished the Gophers 72-52 in the conference opener in December, so that rivalry game will be a challenge.
Three specific wins appear to be mandatory and more easily obtained: at home against Indiana (15-8, 5-7) on Feb. 19, on the road at last-place Northwestern (6-16, 1-11) on Feb. 23, and the regular-season finale at home against Nebraska (7-16, 2-10) on March 8.
In between, Minnesota hosts Big Ten-leading and No. 9-ranked Maryland (19-4, 9-3) on Feb. 26 and plays at Wisconsin (14-10, 7-6) on March 1 and at Indiana on March 4.
Pitino draws the line before falling for the temptation to jump too far ahead. “I think our guys are really, really hungry to get (to the NCAA tournament), I really do,” he said on the radio. “It’s just a matter of getting better this week and, obviously, try to beat a really good Iowa team.”
In in a very similar spot last season, the Gophers earned a win over co-Big Ten champion Purdue in the home finale in March and then clinched a berth with an overtime win over Penn State in the conference tournament. They received a No. 10 seed and beat Louisville in the first round before falling to No. 2 Michigan State in the second.
“I thought we did a great job of kind of handling the stress and the pressure of all that last year, where you just focus on executing,” Pitino said.