The NCAA’s new evaluation tool has not been kind to the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Bracketology experts, however, seem to be looking past their low metrics, and are projecting the Gophers to be part of the 68-team NCAA field.
Provided, of course, the Gophers don’t get passed down the stretch.
The NET rankings, adopted by the NCAA to replace RPI, values efficiency on both ends of the floor and strongly rewards road victories. Largely because of a poor 3-point shooting offense, lackluster 3-point defense and just two road wins on their resume, the Gophers have plunged in the ranks. As a result, their mark of 56th in the NET sits below 12-17 Penn State, 15-14 Nebraska and 15-14 Indiana, all of whom trail Minnesota in the Big Ten standings and are a combined 1-3 against the Gophers.
In previous years, the Gophers (18-11, 8-10) would be done with their regular season and safely off the bubble, but the lengthened 20-game Big Ten schedule sets up Minnesota with two final make-or-break ballgames against Top 20 teams, starting with conference leader No. 14 Purdue (22-7, 15-3) on Tuesday night.
“I really don’t pay attention to [bracket projections],” said senior Jordan Murphy. “We try not to look at that stuff because it puts more pressure on us. That just clouds our judgment of what we really need to do.”
It will be Senior Night for Murphy and Dupree McBrayer, who ironically hope they never have to play again in Williams Arena. If they do, it would mean a likely NIT game. Murphy will leave the program as one of its all-time greatest scorers and rebounders. McBrayer, who dealt with the loss of his mother early in the season, recently scored his 1,000th career point.
The Gophers need their leadership now more than ever as they seek entry into the Big Dance.
“I think our guys have expectations to make the tournament,” said Murphy. “I don’t think we’re going to accept anything less from our guys.”
Six of eight losses in the second half of the conference slate have squelched the public excitement over Pitino’s team, but emotions should run high Tuesday as the Gophers have an opportunity to solidify their position.
It hasn’t always gone smoothly for Minnesota, however, against the Big Ten’s elite on their home floor. The Gophers were blown out by Michigan and outgunned in the second half in losses to Maryland and Wisconsin at The Barn — three of the conference’s top-five teams. Their best home win came against now-No. 22 Iowa. Otherwise, their five conference home wins were against Rutgers, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and Penn State, all of whom will likely miss the tournament.
McBrayer thinks the pressure of Tuesday’s tilt will fuel the Gophers.
“I think it will bring the best out of everybody,” said McBrayer. “I would say this team likes pressure at times. Our backs are against the wall, so we have to perform at our best.”
A loss to Purdue would put heavy pressure on Minnesota to go on the road and beat No. 19 Maryland in the regular season finale.
The Gophers have put themselves in this position by letting numerous winnable games slip away. After starting the conference season 6-4, Minnesota let a 13-point second-half lead evaporate at Purdue, struggled offensively in a five-point home loss to the Badgers and lost tight games at Nebraska and Rutgers in the final minute.
Since their early-January road win at Wisconsin, the Gophers haven’t logged a proverbial signature victory, but taking either of the final two games would qualify. Pitino, meanwhile, is trying to keep bracketology off his players’ minds.
“I have not sensed that they’re really concerned with that,” said Pitino. “A lot of our guys have been there before, and they seem to be handling that well.”
In a sense, the Gophers control their own tournament destiny, but any losses could instigate some scoreboard watching in Dinkytown. Per Lunardi and Palm, Seton Hall, Arizona State, Clemson, Temple, St. John’s, N.C. State and Georgetown are all on the fringe of the field. Any conference-tournament runs from that group could catapult them over the Gophers if Minnesota fails to add to its resume.
Tuesday presents the best opportunity to sow things up on Murphy and McBrayer’s big night. They can become the first four-year scholarship seniors to make an NCAA Tournament since the 2012-13 group under head coach Tubby Smith that included Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. (The Gophers’ 2016-17 tournament team had a senior class consisting of walk-on Darin Haugh and transfer Akeem Springs.)
“This senior class, I think they’ve shown great fight through adversity,” said Pitino. “We’re right there. It would be great for them. They deserve it. They’re great kids, great representatives of the university and great teammates.