It seemed absolutely absurd when Minnesota’s men’s basketball team talked about a top-five Big Ten finish in early December.
After all, the team was predicted by some to not even win a conference game and was just 5-3 in nonconference action, losing to three of its four major conference opponents.
Now, with just one game remaining on their Big Ten slate, the Gophers have locked up the top-five finish that had eluded coach Dan Monson for his first five years at Minnesota.
“It was hard (to believe) with all the negative things being said about the team,” senior Jeff Hagen said. “But we felt confident all year long and, as competitors, we believed we could win games.”
Wisconsin’s win over Ohio State on Saturday dropped the Buckeyes to 7-7 in the conference and out of contention for one of the top five spots.
Now, with a win over Penn State (7-20, 1-13) tonight in State College, Pa., Minnesota has a chance to put itself in fourth or even third place if the chips fall just right.
Wisconsin (19-7, 10-5) beat Indiana (14-12, 9-6) 62-60 Tuesday. If the Badgers go on to lose at home to Purdue on Saturday, the Gophers would earn third place by holding the three-way tiebreaker over both the Badgers and Hoosiers.
Minnesota holds a 2-1 record against the duo, with home wins coming against the Badgers and Hoosiers but a loss at Indiana’s Assembly Hall.
Indiana’s loss to Wisconsin dropped the Hoosiers to 2-2 in the three-team triangle, with two wins at home but two losses on the road.
Wisconsin’s win gave it its lone win of the season against either team, and the team would be fifth in the event of a three-way tiebreaker.
On the other hand, it’s more likely Minnesota will end up in fifth place.
The Badgers haven’t lost in Madison, Wis., since Jan. 25 against Illinois and had not lost in 38 games before that. And with bottom-feeder Purdue coming to the Kohl Center on Saturday, a win would give Wisconsin an 11-5 Big Ten record.
With Indiana’s loss to Wisconsin, it’ll need to beat Northwestern on Saturday, which would make the team 10-6.
In the event of a two-way tie between the Gophers and the Hoosiers, Indiana holds the advantage because of its record against the Big Ten’s top teams.
Because both teams lost in their lone contest against first-place Illinois, the Hoosiers would take fourth by virtue of their upset win over second-place Michigan State on Sunday, which gave them a 1-1 record against the Spartans while the Gophers were 0-2.
Of course, all of this is for naught if Minnesota loses to the Big Ten’s worst team tonight, and doing so would guarantee the Gophers fifth place.
A win is also important for the Gophers because they wouldn’t have to win in the Big Ten Tournament to get to the 20-win mark, which is hallowed ground when it comes to who makes the NCAA Tournament.
“I have no idea what our RPI is; I have no idea about any of that stuff,” coach Dan Monson said, rebuting talk about the postseason. “We need to win on Wednesday for that to even come into play.”
And his players said they have the same mindset.
“Every game is a big game,” senior Aaron Robinson said. “Any Big Ten team can beat any Big Ten team, so we’ve just got to worry about Penn State right now and not get ahead of ourselves.”