High noon: Gophers’ resume in need of a win

Minnesota Vs. Wisconsin

Matt Mead

Minnesota Vs. Wisconsin

Last year, the Big Ten tournament might have been the highlight of the GophersâÄô season. Needing to win the whole thing to get an NCAA tournament bid, they won back-to-back thrillers before losing to eventual-runner-up Illinois in the semifinals. That run included a win against Northwestern that came down to the final few possessions and a win against Indiana on a last-second, borderline-miracle shot from Blake Hoffarber. The Gophers donâÄôt need any drama or championships this year; they just need to hang on long enough to impress the NCAA tournamentâÄôs selection committee. A win in todayâÄôs opening-round game against Northwestern at 11 a.m. in Indianapolis will probably do it. âÄúEverything is in our hands,âÄù junior guard Lawrence Westbrook, who was named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention on Tuesday, said. âÄúIf we win, I think weâÄôll be okay.âÄù ESPNâÄôs Joe Lunardi has the Gophers in the tournament as a No. 11 seed, but the website Bracketology 101, which predicted 64 of 65 teams correctly last year, has them as one of âÄúthe last four out.âÄù The Gophers, who ranked as high as No. 18 this season, probably missed their chance at securing a bid in the regular season with two close losses to Illinois and Michigan in their last three games. Westbrook said he and other players do pay attention to bracketology pundits, and thinks the Gophers need at least one win in the tournament. âÄúIâÄôd be lying if I said we didnâÄôt,âÄù he said. âÄúThe thing IâÄôm excited about is theyâÄôre saying, if we make it to the tournament, weâÄôll be playing in Miami, so we get to get out of this weather.âÄù ItâÄôs a single-elimination tournament, and the Gophers have reason to be nervous. Northwestern gave them perhaps their worst loss this season, a Jan. 18 upset that started a 3-6 stretch that knocked them from the national rankings. The Wildcats have also won three of their last four and will need a few tournament wins to have a chance at an NCAA bid. The Gophers beat Northwestern handily at home Feb. 22, 72-45, but several Wildcats players were sick, including leading scorer Kevin Coble. âÄúThey werenâÄôt at full strength, so we know weâÄôll be seeing a different type of team,âÄù head coach Tubby Smith said. Of the Big Ten teams that need a good showing in the tournament for an NCAA bid, Minnesota may have the toughest path in the bracket. Beating Northwestern, despite its recent success, wouldnâÄôt be a âÄúqualityâÄù win. And if they did win, 24 hours later they would have to play No. 7 Michigan State, the tournamentâÄôs top seed and a team that beat the Gophers by 12 and 29 points this season. Of course, it beats having to win the whole thing. âÄúThis year we control our own destiny, for sure,âÄù freshman center Ralph Sampson III said. âÄúThatâÄôs real exciting.âÄù