After Big Ten tournament loss to Ohio State, Gophers season may be over

Minnesota is firmly on the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) bubble.

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu reacts to losing to Ohio State 79-73 in the Big Ten tournament on Thursday in Chicago. This was Mathieu, Hollin, Walker,Eliason, and Shell

Amanda Snyder

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu reacts to losing to Ohio State 79-73 in the Big Ten tournament on Thursday in Chicago. This was Mathieu, Hollin, Walker,Eliason, and Shell

Jack Satzinger

CHICAGO — One of them laid next to a heap of athletic tape on the locker room floor. The other was still laced up to DeAndre Mathieu’s left foot. After Minnesota’s 79-73 loss to Ohio State on Thursday night at the United Center, the senior guard sat like that for about 10 minutes.  

His black Nike sneakers still have plenty of tread left, but they might not be played in again — not in a Gophers uniform anyway. That’s what bothers him the most.

“It was in our hands. We controlled our own fate,” Mathieu said. “It just sucks to lose. To be done.”

The Gophers’ loss to the Buckeyes (23-9, 11-7 Big Ten) officially eliminated the slim chance of an NCAA tournament berth. It also put Minnesota (18-15, 6-12 Big Ten) right on the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) bubble.

“We feel like we let down the seniors,” freshman guard Nate Mason said.

Mathieu fiddled with scissors, readying to cut tape off of his right ankle. Then he was painfully reminded of Minnesota’s eight regular season conference losses decided by single digits. A play here or there in one of the contests would have made the Gophers safe. It would have ensured they had more basketball to play.

Mathieu scrunched his face and his eyes welled up.

“We really could have got those top 50 wins that could probably put us over the hump and not have us on the bubble,” he said, a few tears streaming down his cheeks.

Maybe it’s not over.

Even if the Gophers don’t get an NIT invite, they could keep playing in a lesser postseason tournament like the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) or CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT). 

“I don’t want to play in the CBI. I don’t even know what the CBI is,” Mathieu said. “I’d rather go to the rec center or something like that.”

After they left the locker room and took to the podium, Richard Pitino essentially said it’s NIT or bust.

“I hope we’re an NIT team,” the second-year head coach said. “I don’t think we would take a CBI or CIT.”

How did the Gophers become an NIT bubble team? The season began with so much promise.

Other than Austin Hollins, every major contributor from last year’s NIT championship came back with the NCAA tournament in mind. Andre Hollins was finally healthy again. Minnesota’s first game was against a top-10 opponent on an Air Force base in Puerto Rico.

Now, after failing to meet expectations, the Gophers’ seniors have to wait a few days to find out if their college careers have ended.

“I just want to play basketball,” redshirt senior center Mo Walker said. “I just want to play until the end.”

Late in Thursday’s loss it sure looked like Minnesota’s veterans were ready for more. Mathieu scored a team-high 16 points, the most he’s tallied since early January. Mo Walker, limited early due to foul trouble, trimmed Ohio State’s lead with multiple three-point plays in the final minutes. Hollins hit a three-pointer with five minutes remaining that cut the lead and put more pressure on the Buckeyes.

“I’m just proud of the way we fought today,” Hollins said.

But in the end, the fight Minnesota had left wasn’t enough. Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell scored 23 points despite being the focal point of Minnesota’s defensive strategy, potentially ending a season the Gophers started with excitement in their eyes. Now, some of them are filled with tears.   

“I hope we have more games left to play, but who knows, man. It’s in somebody else’s hands now,” Mathieu said. “This is just a bad feeling knowing that you don’t decide if you get to play another game.”