NCAA dreams kaput as Gophers head to Illinois

That doesn’t mean Minnesota doesn’t have anything to play for.

The Minnesota men’s basketball team now knows it will likely be playing Northwestern next Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

The combination of the Gophers’ loss to No. 17 Indiana Wednesday night and the Ohio State win against No. 15 Purdue on Tuesday has pretty much locked Minnesota into the sixth-seed as they head to the conference tournament in Indianapolis.

So what do the Gophers (18-11 overall, 8-9 Big Ten) have to play for in their last regular-season game when they meet Illinois on Saturday afternoon at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill?

Plenty.

First and foremost, Minnesota – which is out of NCAA tournament contention unless it makes a surprise run in the Big Ten tournament – is still jockeying for a better seed in whatever postseason tournament they play in.

Typically, a middle-of-the-pack power conference team has no problem receiving a bid from the National Invitational Tournament, but with a plethora of teams having above .500 records and résumés not good enough to make the NCAA tournament, there is no guarantee that the Gophers will make the cut.

Then there is the newly constructed College Basketball Invitational tournament. Nobody seems to know what to expect from the CBI, but the Gophers may receive a bid to the third postseason event, it depends on how the season plays out.

“We’ve got to continue to win; there is no substitute to winning,” Smith said. “Our back’s against the wall for any type of postseason.”

Last, but certainly not least, Minnesota will be playing for pride. The Gophers remember full well how the Illini (12-17, 4-12) embarrassed them at The Barn on Feb. 12, when coach Bruce Weber’s squad handed Minnesota its worst shellacking of the year, an 84-60 loss.

“I’ve been thinking about that for a long time,” senior guard Lawrence McKenzie said.

“I know (the team) didn’t feel good about that loss, didn’t feel good about that day, didn’t feel good about that week. So we have to go in there with a chip on our shoulders and play extra hard.”

Smith said he thinks that particular loss woke his team up.

“I hope it did,” he said. “We played better since that time. We’ve given a better effort. We’ve been under control.

Our demeanor, out attitude has changed over the past few weeks.”

Road warriors

The Gophers decided not to return to Minneapolis after Wednesday’s game in Bloomington, instead choosing to stay in Indianapolis for a day before heading to Champaign.

McKenzie said spending five days on the road together could help the team.

“I think us going on the road with the guys for a week gives us a chance to create a bond, even more of a bond, and come together,” he said.