Minnesota won an NCAA Tournament game last season, and Tubby Smith was shown the door.
The Gophers are flirting with the NCAA bubble, and first-year coach Richard Pitino has the Minnesota fanbase energized.
Pitino has a chance to be the first first-year coach to reach the Tournament since Bill Muselman in 1972, but the Gophers have to make a major statement this week. The Gophers picked up two major wins in January against Wisconsin and Minnesota, but Pitino’s team has been quiet since then.
As they enter a critical week, Minnesota will look to rediscover the magic from earlier this season. Here’s a look at the Gophers as they enter tonight’s key game against Iowa:
By the numbers
Feb. 24: Iowa
Record: 17-11, 6-9 Big Ten
Why Minnesota could be in the Tournament
The Gophers were the taste of the Big Ten for a week or so in January just as Wisconsin and Ohio State started to slump. Minnesota played a major role in that, defeating the Buckeyes and Badgers in Minneapolis. With Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu, Minnesota has two quick guards able to pick apart opposing defenses.
Why Minnesota could be left out
The Gophers’ best days were in January. Since the upset of Wisconsin, Minnesota is 2-6. That stretch has included losses to Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois — teams that are Big Ten Tournament or bust at this point. Minnesota doesn’t have the non-conference resume to force the selection committee to overlook a potential losing record in Big Ten play.
Minnesota needs to: Beat Iowa and/or Michigan this week
Unless Minnesota can defeat Iowa at home today or Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday, the Gophers’ pair of top-20 wins back in January will look like the exception not the rule. Minnesota’s best win away from home is Richmond on the road, so the Gophers could split the week and still need to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament.
Minnesota can’t afford: A loss to Penn State
Losing to Iowa and Michigan would almost certainly banish Minnesota to the NIT. Minnesota finishes the season with Penn State at home on March 9. A loss there may be NCAA Tournament Kryptonite no matter what happens this week.