Men’s hoops striving for wins to stay off bubble

Brian Hall

The question becomes commonplace this time every year when discussing the NCAA tournament. Who is on the bubble?

Unexpectedly, “the bubble” has become a term destined to define the Big Ten this season.

With no clear-cut conference leader and a host of mediocre teams in the middle of the pack, the conference is marred in a down year.

With Indiana, Ohio State and Illinois probable locks for the Big Dance, four bubble teams – Wisconsin, Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota – are fighting for one or two remaining slots.

“For lack of a better term, there is no question that’s where we are at,” Minnesota coach Dan Monson said during Monday’s coaches teleconference. “We are on a fence. Last week we were on the fence to win the Big Ten title. That bubble burst.”

The Gophers (14-9, 7-5 Big Ten) head to East Lansing on Thursday to battle the Spartans (15-10, 6-6) and help their postseason cause while damaging Michigan State’s resume.

“I like our chances, but when you have four to go you’ve got to try to win all four of them,” Monson said. “I don’t know what three does. Who’s ahead of us? What place does that put us in? Those are things you can’t control. What we can control is how many we win. That’s what we have to worry about.”

Minnesota put itself in position to worrying after two disappointing losses last week at Northwestern and against Wisconsin at home. The Gophers, winners of four-straight games previously, missed their chance to place themselves with the elite of the conference.

“Our backs are against the wall right now,” guard Kevin Burleson said. “We’ve got to win these last few games, and I think in practice we’re going to step up to the challenge. Me, Dusty (Rychart), Travarus (Bennett), the older guys, we’re going to need to show leadership to take us to where we need to be.”

Saturday’s loss to the Badgers was especially brutal because it allowed Wisconsin (17-11, 10-5) to leapfrog Minnesota in the standings.

The conference, which has regularly received between five and seven invites to the NCAA Tournament, could receive only four this year making positioning crucial.

The Gophers were tied for fourth place with the surging Illini (19-7, 7-5) starting the week.

Since 1997-98, the year the Big Ten expanded its schedule to 16 games, every team which posted nine wins earned a trip to the tournament.

With the supposed decline of the conference, nine Big Ten wins might not suffice. Yet, the conference coaches remain optimistic.

“Our league has been beat up,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said Monday. “But while the top two teams have not played as well as expected, the teams from the bottom up have played better than expected.

“I think they will take six teams and I hope – think – we have a shot. If we can win some games, I think we deserve to get in.”

If the NCAA invites six Big Ten teams, the Gophers must believe they will make the tournament. With four games remaining Minnesota is using the possibility as a motivational tool.

“We still have aspirations,” Rychart said. “We have to finish strong, pull off a couple wins in the Big Ten tournament and prove the caliber of team we are.”

The first proving ground is the Breslin Center against the three-time defending Big Ten champions.

Brian Hall covers men’s basketball and
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