Late-season fade may not cost Gophers

Tubby Smith's Gophers will probably make the NCAA tournament -- even if they backed in.

MINNEAPOLIS — Are the Gophers in the NCAA tournament? Probably. Should they be? Probably not.

If you listen to the so-called "bracketologists," whose job it is to attempt to predict what the NCAA tournament field will look like, the University of Minnesota basketball team will still be dancing when the selections are announced Sunday. Take a closer examination of the Gophers' recent performance, though, and you're left wondering why they deserve a spot in the tournament.

Minnesota was once ranked No. 8 in college basketball after a 15-1 start to the regular season. Then came the decline into mediocrity, a tumble out of the rankings and a plunge toward the NCAA tournament bubble. Including Thursday's loss to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, Minnesota has lost 11 of its last 16 games — including three straight and five of seven.

Still, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Gophers as a No. 9 seed in his latest bracket, matched up against Colorado State and former Minnesota big man Colton Iverson in a game in Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, CBS Sports' Jerry Palm has the Gophers as a No. 10 seed, up against No. 7 UCLA in the first round in Kansas City.

Fortunately for the Gophers, the last dozen games of the season mean no more to the selection committee than their earlier wins. That means Minnesota's victories against ranked teams such as Michigan State, Illinois and Indiana still carry quite a bit of weight late in the season (enough to outweigh bad losses to Nebraska and Purdue). You would think, though, that some stock would be placed into how a team might be entering the tournament, but it's not among the criteria.

Those early wins and Minnesota's tough schedule have helped buoy the Gophers' tournament hopes. As of Friday, their strength of schedule ranked as the second-toughest in college hoops. But Thursday's loss dropped Minnesota in the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) to 30th. That system is what is used by the selection committed to choose the 37 at-large teams, which means the Gophers are dangerously close to being on the wrong side of the bubble. A win against Illinois on Thursday would have helped their RPI, and they would have had a chance to once again topple Indiana, which the Gophers did when the Hoosiers were the No. 1 team in the country late last month.

That win against Indiana seemed to temporarily jump start things for Minnesota. In all reality, that victory — coupled with a win four days later against Penn State — probably helped solidify the Gophers' spot in the tournament. But those two games turned out to be a blip on the radar rather than a long-lasting trend.

It was the way Minnesota lost in games to Iowa, Ohio State and Purdue that should raise red flags for the Gophers, even if Tubby Smith's team is indeed tournament bound. They lost by a combined 47 points in two games prior to the Indiana win and closed out the regular season with a 16-point loss on the road to Purdue.

Not exactly surging into the tournament.

Minnesota has been up and down this season, not only from game to game but within games as well. That was the case Thursday when the Gophers trailed by nine at the half and rallied to fall by two to the Illini. A lack of consistency has left Minnesota reeling at the worst possible time. The Gophers must now wait anxiously to find out their fate Sunday.

Chances are they're in. It will be Smith's third trip to the NCAA tournament in his six years at the helm at Minnesota. He failed to make it out of the first round the previous two times.

If the Gophers do earn a ticket to the big dance, there will be many questioning whether they deserve the chance. The only way to silence those critics? Win.

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