Thursday to be an important one for the Gophers

The Gophers menâÄôs basketball team will play Northwestern at noon on Thursday in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament, the conference announced Monday. Most experts say the Gophers will need a win in the conference tournament in order to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, which will have its field announced Sunday. The Gophers once seemed near-locks for an at-large bid, ranking as high as No. 18 in the country and sitting at 16-1, but a late-season slide put them squarely on the bubble for the field of 65. A home loss to Michigan on Saturday also knocked them into eighth place in the conference, which means that if they win, they will have to play top-seeded Michigan State âÄî a Spartans team that beat them by 29 points last month. But if the experts are right, ThursdayâÄòs game might be all that matters. On one hand, the Gophers beat Northwestern at home by 27 points Feb. 22, but several of their players were fighting the flu and it was the Wildcats who started MinnesotaâÄôs original tailspin with a Jan. 18 upset in Evanston, Ill. The Gophers had just beaten Wisconsin on the road, and the Northwestern loss started a 3-6 stretch that knocked them from the rankings.