Column: Next stretch of games season defining for Minnesota

Gophers play three winnable games in a row.

David Nelson

Don’t look now, Gophers fans, but the Minnesota men’s basketball team won two of its last three games in conference play following a 0-5 start in Big Ten play.

Beginning with Wednesday’s matchup at Penn State, the next three games for the Gophers will be incredibly winnable and of dire importance.

After this stretch of matchups, Minnesota goes on the road for four of its next five games. Those matchups include Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State.

And just for good measure, the Gophers’ first matchup after the road trip is a home game with the Badgers.

The chances of the Gophers being above .500 over this span remain incredibly slim, based on their preliminary results in the conference thus far.

And that’s exactly why this next trifecta of contests should be counted as must-win games.

At this point in time, the possibility of the Gophers making the National Invitational Tournament, let alone the NCAA tournament, is a far cry.

Despite solid victories against Georgia and on the road at Wake Forest, Minnesota’s tournament résumé needs some serious upgrading.

The Gophers need to start winning, and their best chances to do so are in their next three games.

Penn State holds just one conference victory all season, and Minnesota defeated the Nittany Lions in all three games played last year.

After Penn State, the Gophers then travel back to Minneapolis to face off with Nebraska and Purdue — two teams they already lost to earlier this season.

But the Gophers lost to those two opponents by a combined total of seven points, and both times Minnesota played as the away team.

Compared to last season’s thrill ride, which ended with an NIT title, this year has been relatively disappointing.

Minnesota returned plenty of its key contributors, including four of its five NIT championship starters.

But defense, rebounding and free-throw shooting deficiencies catalyzed a rather underwhelming season of Gophers basketball.

After victories over Rutgers and Illinois, though, Minnesota has started to fill the hole it dug itself into.

The next three games for the Gophers could easily influence where exactly the rest of this season goes.

If Minnesota remains the inconsistent team with an inability to finish games that fans have come to know, its chances of playing in the  postseason are almost zero.

But if Minnesota can get on a roll before hitting the road to take on some of the Big Ten’s best, perhaps it could even produce an upset or two over that stretch.

Whether they like it or not, the Gophers’ season rests on just how well they play over the span of these next three contests.