Gophers hope their bubble hasn’t burst

By JESSE TEMPLE
FOXSportsWisconsin.com

CHICAGO — College basketball statistics gurus and so-called bracket experts relish weeks like this for the opportunity to crunch numbers and agonize over seeding lines. Selection Sunday is a mere three days away, and the high volume of conference tournament games means NCAA tournament projections change seemingly by the hour.

It is a labor-intensive and sometimes maddening process best left to the data dweebs or selection committee members who don’t spend their days playing the game. If you’re a player on a team fighting for a spot in the big dance, the last thing you need to worry about is where or whether you’ll be participating.

Now, Minnesota’s basketball team has no choice.

Illinois guard Brandon Paul sent Minnesota into a three-day window of misery, burying a buzzer-beating step-back jumper from the left wing Thursday afternoon at the United Center. The shot propelled Illinois to a 51-49 victory against Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament and left the Gophers to wallow about “what if?”

What if Minnesota had scored more than two points in a 12-minute span during the first half against Illinois? Or turned the ball over fewer than 19 times? Or defended Paul better on the final possession?

What if Minnesota had beaten lowly Nebraska or Purdue to close the regular season and avoided becoming a No. 9 seed altogether in the Big Ten tournament?

What if Minnesota didn’t collapse under the weight of expectations and lose 11 of its final 16 games?

All those questions pushed to the surface in the aftermath of a heart-wrenching defeat Thursday, and they left just as many questions about the immediate future of the program.

“It’s not a feeling that you want to go into Selection Sunday feeling,” Gophers guard Andre Hollins said. “We haven’t played our best basketball in these past three games. You still want to have faith. We have a pretty good resume. Tough strength of schedule. Good RPI. It’s not a feeling you want to go in with. But we’re still confident.”

Added teammate Austin Hollins: “We still feel like we can get in with our RPI, our strength of schedule. It’s out of our hands at this point.”

Given the spectacular manner in which Minnesota began the season, most pundits believe the Gophers couldn’t possibly damage their NCAA tournament hopes to the point of missing out entirely on the event. After all, Minnesota opened the season 14-1 and ascended to No. 8 in the Associated Press top-25 poll on Jan. 7.  

The numbers will show Minnesota entered Thursday’s game with an RPI of 24. The team’s strength of schedule ranked No. 2 in the country. But players recognize their performance of late means nothing is guaranteed. College basketball analyst Jerry Palm dropped the Gophers (20-12) to a No. 11 seed following Thursday’s loss — one notch above participating in a play-in game.

So what will the Gophers be doing during the NCAA tournament selection show Sunday night?

“Wondering and hoping,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “We had chances for the last three games. We haven’t shot the ball well. That’s been one of our problems. …

“We’ve just got to find some offensive firepower. But I think we have a good resume. We haven’t played well of late. But when you look at the entire body of work, I think we’ve. …” Smith cut himself off and paused. “It’s not up to us. We’ll sweat it out.”

Minnesota has not reached the NCAA tournament since 2009-10 under Smith, and this was supposed to be the team that would breeze into March behind Austin and Andre Hollins, center Trevor Mbakwe and forward Rodney Williams. Yet something happened on the route to the coronation party, and the reasons for the slide were numerous.

The grind of Big Ten play began, and the conference lived up to its billing as the most difficult in the country. That schedule coincided with the Gophers’ drop in scoring. During Minnesota’s first 16 games, it averaged 76.0 points. Over the past 16 games, the Gophers have averaged 60.9 points. Three times, Minnesota failed to reach 50 points in a game — all losses.  

Smith said the production from his bench never materialized late in the season the way he had hoped, which added to the team’s struggles. On Thursday, for example, the Gophers’ bench played a combined total of 54 minutes and scored three points on 1 of 8 shooting from the field.

Minnesota, which trailed 21-9, grabbed a 36-34 lead on Andre Hollins’ layup with 10:25 remaining in the second half. The Gophers didn’t relinquish their advantage until the final minute — a 60-second stretch that epitomized the team’s free-fall the past two months.

Illinois corralled four offensive rebounds on one possession, which led to D.J. Richardson’s game-tying 3-pointer with 44 seconds remaining. And on Minnesota’s ensuing offensive possession, Austin Hollins stepped over the sideline trying to throw the ball off Richardson with 14.6 seconds remaining. The play led to a final shot from Paul, who cleared out across halfcourt, dribbled to his left and swished the game winner. 

In an ideal world for the Gophers, Hollins would have kept his balance, found a way to score and Minnesota would be preparing to play No. 1 seed Indiana in the second round of the Big Ten tournament on Friday morning. Instead, the Gophers will be crunching numbers just like the rest of us all the way until Selection Sunday.

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