Gophers still on the bubble

Minnesota is one of Joe Lunardi’s “Last Four In” after Tuesday’s victory.

Minnesota guard Andre Hollins fights for the ball against Iowa on Tuesday night at Williams Arena.

Holly Peterson

Minnesota guard Andre Hollins fights for the ball against Iowa on Tuesday night at Williams Arena.

by Jace Frederick

Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said his team doesn’t talk about the NCAA tournament — ever.

But ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi does, and Tuesday night’s 95-89 win over No. 20 Iowa has the Gophers (18-11, 7-9) on the right side of Lunardi’s NCAA tournament bubble.

At least for now.

“I moved them back in after last night into that ‘Last Four In’ group,” Lunardi said on a conference call Wednesday.

In order to stay in that position, the Gophers have some work to do in their last two games — at No. 16 Michigan and home against Penn State — and throughout the Big Ten tournament.

If Minnesota splits its final two games, it will finish at 8-10 in conference play. That record would leave the team firmly on the bubble.

“It’s a tenuous position when you’re below .500 in the league,” Lunardi said.

This is a year when teams that are under .500 in their conference — particularly from the Big 12 and the Big Ten — have a chance to make the field, Lunardi said. Still, he said, those teams won’t be in a comfortable position.

“It sure would be a lot easier to feel good about Minnesota’s chances if they could find a way somehow to win these last two games and go into the conference tournament at 9-9,” Lunardi said.

If Minnesota can sweep its last two regular-season contests and finish 9-9 in the Big Ten, he said, it would likely secure a bid for the Big Dance regardless of the Gophers’ performance in the conference tournament.

That’s not going to be easy, though, as Michigan has beat the Gophers in each of the last four meetings, and the Wolverines currently sit atop the Big Ten.

“We know we need to win the majority of our final … games,” senior guard Malik Smith said. “If we think about the tournament too much, we’ll play tight.”

A likely scenario has the Gophers falling to Michigan and then beating Penn State at home. If that happens, Minnesota would finish 8-10 in conference, with some work to do in the Big Ten tournament.

Lunardi said in that scenario, the Gophers would have to win at least their first game in Indianapolis, Ind.

“If they lost their first game at that point, I think they’d be cooked,” he said. “So they’d have to win at least one and then maybe two.“

Still, the exact number of games an 8-10 Gophers squad would have to win in the Big Ten tournament would depend on other teams.

Minnesota could essentially lose a spot on the field if a team that isn’t projected to make the Big Dance wins its conference tournament and automatically qualifies. That happens every year.

“You can generally … look at my seed list and pretty much count on one or two of those [bubble] teams disappearing simply because of events that haven’t yet happened,“ Lunardi said.

A bubble team that the Gophers are jostling with for a spot is conference foe Nebraska.

The Huskers (16-10, 8-6) are ahead of Minnesota in the Big Ten standings but behind it on the bubble. Lunardi has Nebraska on the outside of his projected tournament field.

“Minnesota has at least beaten a couple of other bubble teams — Richmond and Florida State — outside the league,“ Lunardi said.

The Gophers have a fair number of good wins as well — Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa. And the team features the sixth-toughest strength of schedule in the country.

Those factors should weigh in the team’s favor come Selection Sunday.

Still, Pitino said whether his team makes the NCAA tournament or not won’t define the season.

“I didn’t take this job and make the NCAA tournament our goal,“ he said. “I hope we make it, but if we don’t, I’m not looking at this as an unsuccessful season. We are happy with where we’re at.“