NCAA berth slipping from Gophers’ grasp

Minnesota needs to win four of its last five games to reach the 20-win plateau.

Bob Wothe

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – It was anything but a banner week for Minnesota’s men’s basketball team.

The Gophers blew a 10-point lead at home against a Northwestern team that had not won a road game all season and then got blown out by Indiana – a team the Gophers had beaten just 2 1/2 weeks ago and was without its leading scorer Saturday.

Suddenly, a week removed from being considered a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota is barely on the bubble.

“A week ago today, we were riding high after the Wisconsin game,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said after his team’s 71-56 loss to the Hoosiers. “We got frustrated against Northwestern, and that was just kind of contagious into this game.”

Unfortunately for Monson and the rest of the Gophers (16-8, 6-5 Big Ten), losing might be contagious into the upcoming week, as well, with a date on Wednesday at No. 12 Michigan State.

With unfavorable odds against the Spartans, the Gophers could drop to 16-9 overall and have just four games to get to the time-honored 20-win mark that makes teams on the bubble feel confident about their chances.

In other words, they’ll probably need to win them all.

That’s because in the Ratings Percentage Index – one of the main instruments the NCAA Selection Committee uses in picking teams – Minnesota dropped all the way to No. 61 after the loss to Indiana.

An RPI of 30-40 is generally a range in which a team can feel comfortable about making the tournament via an at-large bid.

The Gophers were in that range at No. 34 before their loss to Northwestern.

But that defeat was considered a “bad loss” because the Wildcats are No. 142 in the RPI.

And the loss to Indiana punctuated a week Minnesota could ill afford to have.

“We want to make the other team play ugly, not us,” Gophers center Jeff Hagen said. “But we couldn’t get anything going offensively.”

They’ll need to establish their style in upcoming games at home against Ohio State and Iowa, which are currently No. 55 and No. 51 in the RPI, respectively.

Because the new RPI formula punishes teams for home losses more than it awards home wins, winning those games will be crucial to Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament hopes.

While the Gophers might be able to drop one of those two games and still receive a bid, a road loss to either No. 216 Purdue or No. 221 Penn State would likely prove to the committee Minnesota has fallen from the ranks of a tournament-worthy team.

Of course, all of this talk could be put to rest if the Gophers stun the college basketball world and beat the Spartans on Wednesday.

While that’s yet to be determined, one thing is for sure: with Marquette and Notre Dame moving ahead of Minnesota in the RPI after the Gophers’ ghastly week, the pressure is on Minnesota to keep pace with the two teams it is widely considered to be in competition with for some of the final NCAA spots.

“Coach told us the past two games that we didn’t look like we were having any fun,” Aaron Robinson said. “We’ve got to get back to giving each other high-fives, slaps on the back, chest bumps and all that.”

They’ll need to start winning again, too.