Gophers slipping, not disappearing, in brackets
MINNEAPOLIS — At one point in the season, the University of Minnesota men's basketball team was ranked eighth in the nation. Now the Gophers will be lucky to be a No. 8 seed in next month's NCAA Tournament.
Depending on whom you ask, Tubby Smith's team is right at that eight-seed level based on a few early tournament predictions. ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi and SportsIllustrated.com's Andy Glockner both have the Gophers at a No. 8 seed — although those projections came before Minnesota was embarrassed Wednesday night in a 26-point loss at Ohio State.
Three other sites have the Gophers a bit higher in the tournament seedings. USAToday.com puts Minnesota at a No. 6 seed, where the Gophers would face off against the No. 11 seed — either Saint Mary's or Alabama. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com also pegs Minnesota as a No. 6 seed in the Midwest region, meeting No. 11 California in the first round. The Bracket Big Board used by Yahoo.com has Minnesota as a No. 7 seed, and the Gophers are highlighted as a team moving down.
According to Lunardi, the Gophers would open the tournament against No. 9 Colorado with a game in Lexington in the East region. Glockner has Minnesota starting in the South region against No. 9 San Diego State. That game would also be in Lexington, where Smith coached the Kentucky Wildcats for 10 seasons.
If you go back to mid-January, right before the Gophers started their skid, Lunardi's bracket had Minnesota as a No. 3 seed. Since then, as the losses have piled up, the Gophers' seed in the tournament has dropped. They were a No. 5 seed at the start of February and a No. 6 seed last week before dropping to No. 8 in the latest version.
Wednesday's loss to Ohio State could drop Minnesota even further.
The Gophers can thank their strong RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) for keeping them afloat in the NCAA Tournament picture. The RPI, which is used by the NCAA to determine seeds for the tournament, takes into account a number of factors. Among those is the strength of a team's schedule. Minnesota currently has the second-hardest strength of schedule in college basketball behind only Duke. So while the Gophers' 18-9 overall record and 6-8 mark in conference play is a red flag, the quality of opponents Minnesota has faced is a big part of why the Gophers are still a top-8 seed.
The Gophers must do everything they can to stop their current slide — they've lost eight of their past 11 games after beginning the season 15-1. Minnesota's strength of schedule will get yet another boost early next week when the Gophers host top-ranked Indiana. From there, though, Smith's team faces a trio of unranked teams to close out the regular season in Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue.
Before they were embarrassed by Ohio State on Wednesday, the Gophers were asked if they still believed they were an NCAA Tournament-caliber team. They said exactly what you might expect.
"We're definitely a tournament team," senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said.
Smith, when posed the question, gave a stern "Yes" before continuing.
"We've done our job. Now we have to finish it," he said. "Not many people have won more games in the top 25 than we have."
After Wednesday's loss to No. 18 Ohio State, Minnesota is 4-5 against top 25 teams, albeit three teams were ranked No. 5 at the time the Gophers faced them.
It's the way Minnesota has been losing lately — blowout losses, a stagnant offense and too many turnovers — that has Gophers fans concerned. Many have taken to social media to express their displeasure with the job Smith has done. Among those is Minnesota Twins closer and former Gophers pitcher Glen Perkins, who said on Twitter that he would offer a few thousand dollars to a buyout fund for Smith's contract. The coach is signed through 2016-17, and his contract includes a $2.5 million buyout option.
During Smith's six years at Minnesota, the Gophers have never been seeded higher than No. 10 back in 2009. If you believe the bracketologists, Smith's 2012-13 team is currently poised for its best seed during his time in Minnesota. But there are four games remaining in the Gophers' season, and these brackets can certainly change on a daily basis — for better or worse.
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