Gophers face 'must-win' against Indiana on Wednesday to keep NCAA Tournament hopes alive

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino looks on during the Big Ten Conference college basketball game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Purdue Boilermakers on January 2, 2020, at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana. ((Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images))

Richard Pitino switched things up as the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team returned to practice Tuesday after a gut-wrenching loss to Iowa on Sunday at Williams Arena.

Needing a quality win to boost their NCAA Tournament chances, the Gophers had a 55-47 lead with 5:25 to play. They didn’t score the rest of the way and the Hawkeyes ended the game on an 11-0 run to leave Minneapolis with a 58-55 win. The Gophers attempted just three shots in the final 5:25, had five turnovers and also committed two 10-second violations against Iowa’s full-court zone press.

With Iowa star Luka Garza fouled out, Daniel Oturu missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 3.8 seconds left that could’ve sent the game to overtime with Iowa’s top offensive weapon on the bench. Instead of watching film Tuesday like they normally do, Pitino had players call out and be accountable for their own mistakes during practice.

Then, it was time to move on and get ready for Indiana.

“It’s human nature. You have a bad day like anyone does in all walks of life, you have to be able to respond. You’re going to be put in a position when you compete where you may make a mistake. It happens to every athlete in every sport, the ones that have the short memory are the ones that are the good ones,” Pitino said Tuesday.

The reality for the Gophers (12-12, 6-8) now is they likely need to go, at minimum, 5-1 over their last six regular season games to feel good about their NCAA Tournament chances heading into Selection Sunday. They’d prefer not to have to rely on a Big Ten Tournament run.

“These last six games are super important. It’s going to be a dogfight tomorrow, both teams have a lot at stake so it should be a good one,” guard Payton Willis said.

He’s right. Indiana visits Minneapolis in a similar position as the Gophers. The Hoosiers (16-9, 6-8) are tied for 12th with Minnesota in the Big Ten with six games to play and have lost five of their last six. They handled the same Hawkeyes that beat Minnesota 89-77 at Assembly Hall, then promptly went to Michigan and were manhandled, 89-65.

The formula for the Gophers is pretty simple: Win your three remaining home games, and win two of at Northwestern, Wisconsin and Indiana, and you can feel good about your NCAA Tournament chances before the conferenc tournament. If Minnesota finishes the regular season with anything less than 17 wins, it will need a run at the Big Ten Tournament.

It's life in Power 5 basketball in mid-February, and it often leads to late nights for head coaches. That’s especially if you’re going home after a loss.

“It’s stressful, some sleepless nights. But that’s the fun of it too. It’s great to be in the hunt, obviously it would be better if we had won that last game. But still some really good opportunities right here and when you have so many new guys, Amir decides to go to the NBA and Eric tears his ACL again, there was a lot of uncertainty,” Pitino said. “You have a schedule that’s been as hard as it has, we’re right there. We just need to break through. Now is very, very important. It’s fun, but it’s stressful.”

The Gophers were in a similar spot last year before winning at Northwestern and on Senior Night against Purdue, then beating Penn State and Purdue to get to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. That locked up an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

The path to the Big Dance remains there, though it might be harder to see this time around. The Gophers are moving on from Iowa, they have no other choice and getting a win over Indiana Wednesday night is what’s most important now.

“It’s exciting. Every game is competitive and every game counts. We probably need the next six, if we can get all six of them, so it’d be better to be in a position where we wouldn’t have to worry about that. But the added competitiveness just makes it more fun along the journey,” freshman Tre Williams said.

If the Gophers get the right wins and get to 17, their spot in the Big Ten standings won’t matter. The NCAA Selection Committee could choose as many as 11 or 12 teams from the league this year, it’s been one of the deepest in college basketball.

Minnesota has one of the toughest schedules in the country this year, something Pitino hopes the committee notices if the Gophers finish the season on a win streak.

“The one thing the committee has shown is that league standings don’t matter. They don’t care about what you are in the league, they care about the whole body of work from November to March. They want you to play tough schedules, and they seem to be judging you on the quality of your wins,” Pitino said.