Gophers loose entering Big Tens

The team is confident, but some say an NCAA berth isn’t locked up yet.

Bob Wothe

With multitudes of college basketball tournaments going on around the country, there are plenty of high-quality games to see.

Gophers coach Dan Monson said there might be none better than his team’s game against Indiana today.

“This might be the best first-round matchup there is in all of America,” said Monson, who has a 2-5 career record in the Big Ten Tournament. “You’ve got two teams coming in playing very good basketball, and I expect it to be very intense.”

An NCAA Tournament bid might be on the line when Minnesota (20-9, 10-6 Big Ten) takes the United Center floor against the Hoosiers (15-12, 10-6) today.

The Gophers have been saying they’re in after slipping past Penn State on March 2 – a win that gave them 20 wins overall and 10 in the Big Ten.

But others said they aren’t so sure, calling Minnesota’s contest against the Hoosiers a “play-in” game, with the winner getting an NCAA bid and the loser going to the less-prestigious National Invitational Tournament.

The Gophers disagree.

“We feel we’ve done enough to be in,” senior Jeff Hagen said. “We’re going to Chicago as a team that’s loose.”

Loose is something Minnesota has not been for some time, as the squad has narrowly triumphed in four straight “must-win” games.

In fact, the only team as hot as the Gophers are right now is, predictably, Indiana.

The Hoosiers have won four of their last five, including beating No. 9 Michigan State two weeks ago.

Indiana’s lone loss came by two points at Wisconsin, a game marred by controversial officiating.

Despite being on a hot streak, the Hoosiers need today’s game more than the Gophers do.

Minnesota still has a strong case for postseason play – even with a loss – because of its top-50 Ratings Percentage Index rank, and the Gophers would still be 10 games over .500.

On the other hand, Indiana would fall to 15-13 with a loss – not the kind of record a team can feel good about when trying to garner an at-large bid.

And that’s why Hagen said being loose against a Hoosiers team with a lot on the line might be a big key.

“Pressure can really affect you,” Hagen said. “It won’t be like it was against Penn State, when every shot you missed you thought, ‘Oh man, we’re not going to the tournament now.’

“We don’t feel that much pressure, but people are saying Indiana has to win at least two in the Big Ten Tournament.”

Today’s matchup is the third of the year between the two teams. The Gophers won 70-65 at Williams Arena on Jan. 26 but fell 71-56 on Feb. 12 in an ugly loss in Bloomington, Ind.

“We already think we’ve done enough, but they need this game,” senior Brent Lawson said. “We beat them once, they beat us once and it’ll be nice to settle it on a neutral court.”

Tournament update

The six through 11 seeds played Friday in Chicago, with Iowa defeating Purdue 71-52, Northwestern beating Michigan 58-56 and Ohio State beating Penn State 72-69.