Final week will decide U’s fate

Murali Balaji

Three games, one week. That is all that separates the Gophers’ basketball team from a date with March Madness, or perhaps a less-than-glamorous trip to the National Invitation Tournament.
For Minnesota (15-8 overall, 6-7 in the Big Ten), a season that has seen a team struggle through growing pains and immaturity hangs on the outcome of their final three games.
The Big Ten tournament next week in Chicago could bolster their postseason aspirations, but the Gophers are in a position to accept nothing less than a 2-1 record in their home-and-home series with Purdue and their season finale Saturday at Northwestern.
“It’s like a pro schedule,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “It’s a real stress on us, especially on my players.”
Here are some possible scenarios that hinge on the outcomes of the Gophers’ last three regular season games:
ù (3-0) Haskins is confident that Minnesota will be a NCAA tournament team if they reach the 17- or 18-win plateau. His assertion is supported by the fact that the Big Ten has been by far the strongest conference in the nation this year.
“If we win all three games they can’t keep us out,” Haskins said.
Sweeping its remaining schedule would assure Minnesota a spot in the NCAA tournament, especially since the Gophers, Boilermakers and Wildcats are vying for the same position in the Big Ten standings.
ù (2-1) Here is where things get sketchy. While Minnesota would still be a candidate for an NCAA tournament seed, the Gophers could be passed over in favor of a team with a stronger in-conference record or a team from another conference that has a higher power ranking.
Home-court advantage in the NIT would be all but guaranteed, and Haskins would find an easier road to repeat as the tournament’s champion.
ù (1-2) Not exactly a great position, but Minnesota could still back into NCAA tournament play. The NIT, on the other hand, would be a lock.
“There is nothing wrong with playing in the NIT,” Haskins said. “The one thing that separates the two tournaments is all the network money that goes into the NCAA tournament.”
ù (0-3) Losing out would crush Minnesota’s NCAA tournament hopes, since the team would finish the regular season with a 6-10 conference record. The Gophers would still be selected for the NIT, but might not host any games.
ESPN basketball commentator Quinn Buckner said playing in the NIT might be in the Gophers’ best interests.
“When you look at Minnesota, with the exception of Quincy Lewis and Kevin Clark, this is a team that doesn’t have the offensive consistency to sustain a run in the NCAA tournament,” Buckner said. “They’re a very young team, but they’re definitely good enough to win in the NIT.”
With Clark playing at less than full strength, Minnesota’s ability to give Lewis consistent offensive support is hindered. Even Haskins admits that the Gophers’ talent level isn’t on par with other contenders in the Big Ten.
“We’re not blessed with great players,” he said. “Quincy Lewis is our only quality Big Ten player. He doesn’t have the type of team around him that Mateen Cleaves has at Michigan State or Michael Redd has at Ohio State.”
In the last two games, the bench — one of the team’s bona fide shaky areas — has played with increased intensity and production, giving the Gophers starters much-needed help during the team’s stretch run. The recent emergence of forward Dusty Rychart, who scored 11 points against Penn State, and guard Mitch Ohnstad should allow Haskins to go deeper into his bench for longer durations this week.
“I think we’ve had some great contributions from our younger players,” Lewis said. “I think we can only get better, and that’s going to help us a lot (this) week and in the Big Ten tournament. We can only go as far as team play takes us.”