Gophers get early postseason test with Illinois

MINNEAPOLIS — From eighth in the country to the ninth seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s how far the Gophers basketball team has fallen this season.
When the conference tournament kicks off this Thursday, Minnesota will be the No. 9 seed against No. 8 Illinois — quite the tumble from where the Gophers were earlier in the year. At one point, Tubby Smith’s team was ranked in the Top Ten and looked poised to finish near the top of the Big Ten standings.
Following Saturday’s loss to Nebraska in the regular-season finale, though, Minnesota finished 20-11 overall and just 8-10 in the Big Ten. The sub-.500 conference mark means that Smith has failed to finish with a winning Big Ten record in his six seasons with the Gophers.
Meanwhile, Illinois lost its final two regular-season Big Ten games to Iowa and Ohio State but finished with the same 8-10 conference mark as the Gophers. Since the Illini hold the tiebreaker over Minnesota, they were given the No. 8 seed while the Gophers wound up as the No. 9 seed.
Minnesota and Illinois will open the tournament on Thursday with an 11 a.m. CT tipoff at the United Center in Chicago. The winner gets the honor of playing top-seeded Indiana — which clinched the Big Ten title outright on Sunday — in the second round on Friday. 
The Gophers and Fighting Illini faced off twice during the regular season, with each team winning on the road. Back when Minnesota won in Champaign on Jan. 9, Illinois was ranked No. 12 at the time. It was part of the Gophers’ three-game winning streak to start the Big Ten season, which capped an 11-game overall winning streak. After beating the Illini, though, Minnesota’s season took a turn for the worse as it lost four straight. 
It was a similar scenario when Illinois came to Williams Arena and topped the 18th-ranked Gophers by a 57-53 final. That was part of the Illini’s five-game winning streak, its best stretch of the Big Ten season. In that win over Minnesota, Illinois shot 11-for-23 from 3-point range, a big key in the victory. The Gophers also committed 12 turnovers, a problem that has plagued them for much of the season.
Both teams have been tough to figure out this season. Illinois had a strong start to its non-conference schedule, including a win over then-No. 10 Gonzaga on the road. The Illini also beat No. 8 Ohio State early in the Big Ten season and later edged top-ranked Indiana on Feb. 7.
Minnesota also had some marquee wins, including two wins against ranked teams (Michigan State and Illinois) in its first three Big Ten games. Like the Illini, the Gophers also toppled top-ranked Indiana, a game that appeared to give Minnesota some confidence late in the year. But the Gophers went 1-2 following the win over the Hoosiers to limp into the Big Ten Tournament.
A year ago, Minnesota was not in position to make the NCAA Tournament when it entered the Big Ten Tournament. The Gophers played two overtime games in the conference tournament last year, beating Northwestern 75-68 before falling to No. 13 Michigan by a 73-69 final. Minnesota then made a deep run in the NIT Tournament before losing in the championship game.
At this point, the Gophers’ place in the NCAA Tournament appears safe despite losing four of their last six regular-season games. Minnesota’s strength of schedule — second in the nation — has helped buoy its RPI.  But in order to improve its seeding, though, Minnesota will need to win a few games in the Big Ten Tournament. 
Another win over the Hoosiers would be nice, but the Gophers can’t do that unless they get past Illinois first.

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