CHICAGO, Ill. — It’s Big Ten Tourney Thursday, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers (19-12, 9-11) are set to make their postseason debut at the United Center against the 10th-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions, the final team that escaped playing in Wednesday’s play-in round.

And shockingly, there might not be a hotter team entering the tournament than Penn State, who started the conference season 0-10, including a nail-biting one-point loss at Williams Arena on Jan. 19.

In the second half of the conference season, the Nittany Lions went 7-3 with home wins over Michigan and Maryland along with road wins at Illinois and Rutgers. Patrick Chambers’ team is not an NCAA Tournament threat, but they could play spoiler for the Gophers as 3-point favorites despite their lower seeding. Over the last 10 games, they’ve not only improved their shooting splits by around 3 percent across the board but have defended the 3-point line 10 percent better than they did during their long early-season conference losing streak.

PSU SHOOTING SPLITS (FG/3P/FT)

Off. Splits Def. Splits
Big Ten Games 3-10 40/30/68 47/43/73
Big Ten Games 11-20 43/33/72 42/33/73

Here are the rest of the storylines surrounding Thursday’s first-round game:

Bracketology: If you believe the foremost bracket experts, the Golden Gophers are hardly in jeopardy of falling out of NCAA Tourney contention, barring a string of outsiders winning mid-major conference tournaments like St. Mary’s did in the WCC.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Gophers as a 10-seed in his most recent projection, while CBS’s Jerry Palm projects them as a 9-seed. Major-conference bubble teams are typically viewed as approximately 11-seeds, so there is presumably plenty of leash if the Gophers slipped up against Penn State.

The big question is: How heavily will the committee incorporate the new NET rankings, where the Gophers are not strong?

Schedule Strength: One reason the Gophers may have curried some favor in projections — despite having a No. 56 NET ranking that is fourth-worst in the Big Ten — is their strength of schedule, which ranks sixth-hardest in the conference (37th nationally).

“What we’ve been able to do with the league, playing teams at the top twice, at Michigan State, we’ve had a very hard schedule,” said head coach Richard Pitino on a conference call, “so our guys have handled it well.”

Minnesota’s non-conference slate, while featuring numerous major-conference foes, didn’t do them any favors as many of their “guarantee games” came against mid-to-low-majors with bad records. They made up for that, however, with a Big Ten schedule that offered two opportunities each against Maryland, Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan, four of the conference’s top-five finishers.

The Gophers went just 2-6 in those eight games, but none of the defeats would be viewed as quote-unquote bad losses by the committee. Late-season runs by Illinois and Rutgers also softened the appearance of Minnesota’s road losses in those two venues.

Improvements: Pitino was asked Monday about improvements his squad has made throughout the year and pinpointed two areas.

“Defensively we’ve gotten better,” he said. “There’s been a lot of progress there. We’ve been pretty solid across the board with everything we’ve done defensively, and offensively we’ve improved because we stopped turning the ball over.”

Let’s unpack that a bit more.

The Gophers’ did not finish the year as a highly-ranked defensive team in conference-only rankings, ending 10th in scoring defense, 11th in field-goal percentage against and ninth in 3-point percentage against. They did, however, see opponents’ field-goal percentages drop from 46 percent in the first half of conference play to 42 percent in the second half of conference play. Minnesota’s problem was it only shot 41 percent in those final 10 games, going 3-7 in the process.

Turnovers didn’t necessarily improve, as Pitino claimed. The Gophers averaged 10.9 turnovers per game in the first 10 conference games; 10.8 turnovers per game in the final 10. If you isolate a 13-game stretch in the middle of the conference slate, they averaged just 9.9 per game, but they regressed in the final four outings with 12.5 per game. The Gophers were one of six Big Ten teams with a negative turnover margin, hardly spectacular at taking care of the ball.

Needing Gabe: Minnesota’s top 3-point shooter Gabe Kalscheur has been accurate, dependable and clutch for the Gophers this season. But as many freshman do, he’s occasionally found it difficult to cope with the extra defensive attention now that scouting reports have labeled him the team’s top shooting threat.

Since going 6 for 6 from 3-point range at Rutgers, Kalscheur shot just 4 for 14 in the final three conference games, going 3 for 10 from 3. And in five of the final seven Big Ten games, he attempted five or fewer field goals.

“When you shoot the ball like he does, you’re going to get scouted,” said Pitino, “so what do you do besides that on the offensive end of it to get yourself some shots? Find ways to get open and do those things. That’s a learning experience for Gabe.”


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