Gophers focused on Penn State, Big Ten tourney run

It’s the best time of the year if you’re a college basketball fan.

Major conference tournaments start in earnest this week, while some low and mid-major conferences have already determined automatic entries to the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers open the Big Ten Tournament Thursday as the No. 7 seed, and face No. 10 seed Penn State.

Richard Pitino and the Gophers go into the league tournament confident that regardless of what happens in Chicago, their name will be called as an at-large bid on Selection Sunday. Minnesota’s 19-12 record going into Chicago doesn’t suggest that they’re a lock, but all bracket experts currently have the Gophers in the NCAA Tournament without much of a sweat.

“The committee takes the whole body of work. A win in November, us beating Washington, was just as big as us beating Purdue. That’s just the way they weigh it,” Pitino said. “They want you to play a great non-conference schedule, we did that.”

The NCAA Selection Committee looks at a lot of things when it considers a team’s overall body of work. But the main focuses are on quality wins, and bad losses. That’s where the Gophers have the strongest case for an at-large bid.

Minnesota has Quadrant 1 wins over Purdue, a neutral site win over Washington and a road win at Wisconsin. The Gophers are also 7-3 in Quadrant 2 games. Most importantly, they’re a combined 9-0 in Quadrants 3 and 4. They don’t have any lower-tier losses on their schedule, and that might be the most important factor heading into Selection Sunday.

It’s also why the Gophers feel they’ve already secured an NCAA Tournament bid, regardless of what happens against Penn State Thursday or in the Big Ten Tournament in general. They’re currently No. 56 in the NCAA’s polarizing NET rankings, No. 47 in the Sagarin rankings, No. 46 in the KenPom rankings and No. 54 in the BPI, all metrics the selection committee considers in the at-large seeding process.

Bracketologists Andy Katz, Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm all have the Gophers as a No. 10 seed. It means a lot has to happen during conference tournament week for Minnesota to even be on the bubble if it loses to Penn State on Thursday. That said, the Gophers can do themselves a lot of favors with a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament, both for seeding purposes and their overall confidence.

Minnesota got an emotional 73-69 win over No. 11-ranked Purdue on Senior Night before losing 69-60 at Maryland last Friday in a game that was never really competitive. The Gophers’ focus now is on beating the Nittany Lions Thursday. In the lone meeting between the two teams earlier this season, Minnesota escaped with a 65-64 victory.

It was Penn State’s sixth loss during an eight-game league losing streak at the time. The Nittany Lions finished 7-13 in Big Ten play, including wins over Michigan and Maryland, and a loss at Wisconsin that went down to the wire. They started 0-10 before winning seven of their last 10 heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

The Gophers would face Purdue Friday with a win over the Nittany Lions.

“Just looking at Penn State to be honest. For us it’s all about Penn State. We’re going to do everything in our power, I’m so dialed into Penn State that’s all I really focus on,” Pitino said.

The Gophers will be relying heavily on their two best players, who are also on the court as much as they can be. Jordan Murphy is a First Team All-Big Ten selection and will go down as Minnesota’s all-time leading rebounder, and finish top-five in scoring. He’s also playing more than 31 minutes per game with Eric Curry out for the season.

Amir Coffey was named Third Team All-Big Ten, and doesn’t come off the floor if he can help it. He leads the Gophers at 16 points per game, has started every game this season and is playing 34.5 minutes a night on average. He scored 31 points in a win at Northwestern, 32 points in the win over Purdue and 23 in the loss at Maryland.

“Amir doesn’t seem tired at all. It’s college basketball, it’s not the NBA. There’s not 82 games, there’s 30 something games,” Pitino said. “You’ve got several days in between games, they’ll be just fine.”

Coffey has played at least 32 minutes in 20 of the Gophers’ last 22 games, including playing all 40 in a loss at Rutgers and a win at Northwestern. He played 38 minutes in the win over Purdue and the loss at Maryland, and isn’t phased one bit by it.

He’ll stay on the court as long as Pitino needs him to. He’s prepared to play 40 minutes every game, if that’s what the Gophers need to win.

“If that’s what coach wants me to do, I’ll definitely do it. I feel like once you get up there, it all feels the same. I could play 20 minutes and be sore the next day, so it all feels the same,” Coffey said.

After it’s all said and done, there’s just something different when it comes to March Madness and the atmosphere created in a survive-and-advance scenario. Pitino said Tuesday it’s about getting over missed shots, turnovers, potentially tough calls and even not being on the floor.

“You’ve got to totally pour yourself into getting a win, that’s all the matters,” Pitino said. “It’s all about doing everything that you possibly can to help the team win. These things come down to the wire. That’s why these tournaments are so fun, it’s single-elimination. It’s great for the fans, great for TV and it’s great to be a part of.”

That’s March Madness in a nutshell, and it appears the Gophers will be involved for the second time in three years. All they care about right now is winning on Thursday.

“Our goal going into it is to win. That’s our sole focus right now, just trying to get past Penn State. It’s about winning. I’ve never won a Big Ten Tournament, so I definitely want to go out winning like that. I think others do too,” Murphy said.