Minnesota sees tournament chances fade

The Gophers could be on the outside looking in for a NCAA tournament berth for the second-straight season.

Forward Taiye Bello secures a rebound near the end of the fourth quarter during the Gophers' 75-69 loss to Indiana at Williams Arena on Saturday, Feb. 22.

Parker Johnson

Forward Taiye Bello secures a rebound near the end of the fourth quarter during the Gophers’ 75-69 loss to Indiana at Williams Arena on Saturday, Feb. 22.

Brendan O'Brien

At the beginning of this season, head coach Lindsay Whalen and several Minnesota players said it was their goal to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Despite losing the season opener to Missouri State, it seemed like the Gophers would not have much trouble achieving that. They rattled of 11 straight wins to wrap a more challenging non-conference schedule that included wins over Arizona State and later Penn State in the Big Ten opener.

But a lot has changed since that point, including the departure of star guard Destiny Pitts and two damaging losing streaks. Now at the end of February, time is running out for teams to make their case or push their way into the tournament, and it appears the Gophers will be on the outside looking in for the second-consecutive season.

Minnesota is currently 15-12 on the season with a record of 5-11 in the Big Ten, fourth-worst in the conference. Moreover, current bracket projections don’t have the Gophers near the overall tournament picture.

For the Gophers to earn a spot in the tournament, they will need to make the most of what little time is left in the season. Wins in their final two games of the season against ranked opponents — Thursday at No. 18 Iowa and Sunday at home against No. 7 Maryland — would be a good first step in improving their tournament chances. 

However, Minnesota’s most likely path into the NCAA Tournament is to win the Big Ten Tournament next week. The level of competition in the Big Ten has played a significant role in sinking the Gophers’ tournament hopes throughout the season. As of Tuesday, eight Big Ten teams were projected to earn tournament bids, according to ESPN’s Charlie Creme. Four of those teams are also ranked in the top 25.

When looking back on the season, the Gophers did take advantage of some opportunities to improve upon their resume, including their impressive non-conference record and playing two opponents — Missouri State and Arizona State — who are now ranked in the top 25. Pulling off a double-overtime victory at home against Rutgers in early February also looked like it could be a sign the Gophers would get back on the tournament track late in the season.

But, with those successes came plenty of missed opportunities as well. During their five-game losing streak in late December and January, four of them were one-possession games, three of them were at home and two of them were against top three Big Ten opponents Northwestern and Iowa. The Gophers also have some tough losses to swallow including a three-point loss at Illinois, their first game without Pitts, and their first matchup against Wisconsin in which they gave up a season-high 54 points in the paint.

If the Gophers fail to make the NCAA Tournament, seniors Jasmine Brunson, Taiye and Kehinde Bello and Masha Adashchyk will leave the team with just one NCAA Tournament appearance in their Minnesota careers while Whalen and players like Jasmine Powell, Gadiva Hubbard and Sara Scalia will return to the drawing board with their sights set on the 2021 season.