Indiana is Gophers’ last chance for dance

If any hope remains for an NCAA tourney berth, Minnesota needs a win.

The Minnesota men’s basketball team is eight games above .500, tied for fifth in the Big Ten and playing its best basketball of the season as the calendar turns to March.

Yet no NCAA tournament projection has the Gophers even within a sniff of bracket consideration.

While many other middle-of-the-pack power-conference teams are being labeled “on the bubble,” – Syracuse (Big East), Maryland (ACC) and Kentucky (SEC) to name a few – Tubby Smith’s squad still isn’t on the national radar when it comes to a possible at-large berth for the Big Dance.

That could change, however, if the Gophers can upset No. 18 Indiana tonight at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind.

“We have a lot to play for and I know they have a lot to play for,” Smith said. “We know we have our hands full going to Bloomington against a very good Indiana team.”

The reasons many believe Minnesota (18-10 overall, 8-8 Big Ten) isn’t quite tournament-caliber material is its weak nonconference schedule and lack of signature wins.

The Gophers, who picked up arguably their only statement win of the season by beating Ohio State on Saturday, have a strength of schedule of 118 and a Rating Percentage Index – a formula tournament committee members rely heavily on – of 92; both far worse numbers than other teams getting tournament consideration.

So while the Gophers maintain they are taking things one game at a time with two regular season games remaining, they understand the big picture and realize they need to win out and pull at least one upset in the conference tournament next week to move their NCAA tournament hopes from life support back to stable condition.

“We definitely talk about the big picture,” senior guard Lawrence McKenzie said. “This (stretch) means more than anything. Basically, if we want to go to postseason play, this is it right here. This is very important to us.”

Gophers have Hoosiers’ attention

The way interim Indiana coach Dan Dakich gushed about the Gophers during Monday’s Big Ten teleconference, it sounds like Minnesota will have a supporter come “Selection Sunday” regardless of how it finishes the regular season.

Dakich, now at the helm of the Hoosiers (24-5 13-3) after former coach Kelvin Sampson was dismissed amid NCAA violations, knows how well the Gophers have been playing lately. He was up until 4 a.m. Monday looking at recent Minnesota games, and came away impressed with what he saw.

“They are playing as tough as any team in the league,” he said.

Dakich said he also remembers how fortunate Indiana was to overcome a late deficit and beat the Gophers 65-60 at Williams Arena on Jan. 17, one of many lost home games for Minnesota that has put it in the unfavorable position of winning on the road to get the wins needed to pursue an at-large tournament berth.

“The game up there was as tough a game we had all year and quite frankly we may have gotten lucky to win it,” Dakich said.