From No. 8 in the nation to No. 9 in the Big Ten, the Minnesota Gophers (20-11, 8-10) have fallen out of the discussion for an NCAA title since the beginning of January.
Even with a miserable end to the regular season, Minnesota is still expected to be included in the NCAA tournament because of the overall resume that the team pieced together.
Wins against Indiana, Michigan State, and other locks for the NCAA tournament have put a cushion between the Gophers and the bubble.
Even if the Gophers lose Thursday against Illinois, the loss would not affect the team’s chances of making the tournament.
Tubby Smith and his roster herald the second toughest strength in the country. Between the journey in the Big Ten and the bevy of strong non-conference opponents, the schedule alone impresses experts when deciding the 68-team field.
But eight straight road losses have dropped Minnesota to a No. 9 seed in the latest bracketology.
By winning Thursday’s match up against the Fighting Illini, the Gophers would stabilize as a No. 8 or nine seed in the tournament. A victory on Friday against Indiana in the second round would should eliminate any doubt that the selection committee had on the squad.
But if there is one thing that Smith has done well in over the years at Minnesota, it’s the Big Ten Tournament.
In 2010, Minnesota zoomed past opponents and clashed with Ohio State for the Big Ten Tournament title.
In his first five seasons as the Gophers head coach, Smith has lost a first-round game just once in 2011.
Illinois is a dangerous opponent for the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament for multiple reasons.
First, the Fighting Illini match up against Minnesota’s lineup really well in terms of size and athleticism.
Second, head coach John Groce has brought his team together resulting in a strong finish to the regular season.
But Illinois aside, a surprise run in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago could allow the Gophers to rocket up the bracket on Selection Sunday and as high as a No. 6 seed if the Gophers win the tournament.