Gophers men’s basketball in the NCAA Tournament? It would take an epic hot

Minnesota Gophers head coach Ben Johnson gives instructions to his team as they play Florida Gulf Coast Eagles in the second half a NCAA men’s basketball game at Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023. Minnesota beat Florida Gulf Coast, 77-57. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

The Gophers men’s basketball team has put itself in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament. That’s a credit to the work head coach Ben Johnson has done with a remade backcourt and a maturing and deeper roster in Year 3 of his tenure at the U.

After managing just six combined Big Ten wins in Johnson’s first two seasons leading the program, the Gophers are 7-7 in conference play so far this year. And talk of the tournament makes them “relevant,” a word Athletics Director Mark Coyle used for a baseline improvement he wanted to see from the program this winter.

But the U is not on the tip of the tongue when it comes to March Madness. The Gophers appear in need of going on an incredible hot streak to make the 68-team field. ESPN and CBS Sports do not have the Gophers “on the bubble.”

Minnesota’s NET ranking — a key metric used to determine the at-large field — is 76th in the country. The U hasn’t moved up much since being 85th when the Big Ten schedule restarted in early January.

ESPN on Wednesday morning labeled eight teams on the outside looking in, and the lowest NET ranking among those teams was Providence at 60th. CBS categorized 21 teams as “on the bubble,” and the lowest NET ranking was Mississippi at 67th.

The bracketologists, however, have taken notice of the Gophers’ improved play. CBS’ Jerry Palm wrote on X after the 84-76 loss to then-No. 2 Purdue a week ago: “Minnesota is getting better every week. Ben Johnson has done a great job with this team.”

The Gophers have six games remaining, starting with Ohio State (65th in NET ranking) at 7 p.m. Thursday at Williams Arena. A victory over the Buckeyes would be considered a Quad 2 win. Nice but not one to move the needle much.

The Gophers have three Quad 1 opportunities left on their schedule, all road games: Nebraska on Sunday, No. 12 Illinois on Feb. 28 and Northwestern in the regular-season finale on March 9.

The U is 1-5 in Quad 1 games this season, with the sole win coming over Michigan State 59-56 at The Barn on Feb. 6.

Minnesota also has two Quad 3 home games remaining: against Penn State on March 2 and Indiana on March 6. That pair, like Ohio State, are clearly must-win games if the Gophers want to get serious consideration.

The Gophers find themselves in this spot primarily because of their weak nonconference schedule. Analytics site KenPom has Minnesota’s adjusted nonconference strength of schedule ranking dead last in college basketball (362 out of 362).

Minnesota went 9-2 outside the Big Ten this season, but squandered its two best nonconference opportunities.

The U regurgitated a 20-point lead in a 70-68 home loss…

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Read More: Gophers men’s basketball in the NCAA Tournament? It would take an epic hot 2024-02-21 16:42:19

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