MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - Richard Pitino knows it and his players probably talk about it amongst themselves. Minnesota is on the verge of locking up an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Gophers aren’t going to let it be a source of nerves or pressure. Rather, they’re going to embrace the possibilities with every quality opponent they face. Minnesota gets its chance to inch closer to March Madness with No. 7-ranked Michigan coming to Williams Arena Thursday night.
The Wolverines are battling with Purdue and Michigan State for the Big Ten regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
“So much at stake in this building, there shouldn’t be an empty seat in the house,” Pitino said.
The Gophers (17-9, 7-8) are currently seventh in the Big Ten, and their two best wins are away from Williams Arena: at Wisconsin, and a neutral site winner over likely Pac-12 winner Washington. But they are 12-2 on their home court, with one of the top wins being over Iowa.
After a potentially devastating loss at Nebraska last week, the Gophers responded by controlling Indiana from start to finish in an 84-63 victory on Saturday. They shot 12-of-22 from three-point range, led by Gabe Kalscheur’s 6-of-8. Kalscheur, combined with Amir Coffey, went 9-of-14 in the win.
“We came out hot. We’re just repping it out in practice. We’re taking every rep seriously and you can see it starting to translate,” said senior guard Dupree McBrayer, who scored 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting in Saturday’s win.
In Minnesota’s four-game losing streak, the Gophers shot a combined 14-of-57 (24.5 percent) from three-point range.
It was McBrayer’s first game scoring in double figures since the Gophers beat Rutgers 88-70 on Jan. 12. He had scored nine points three times since, and eight once. Minnesota was 2-2 in those four contests.
The Gophers are one of the more balanced scoring teams in the Big Ten with four players averaging double figures. Amir Coffey leads Minnesota at 15.3 points per game, with Jordan Murphy (15), Daniel Oturu (10.8) and Kalscheur (10.5) not far behind. In his last three games, Kalscheur is shooting 11-of-15 from the perimeter.
“You need your good players to play well. It sounds simple, but you need those guys to perform,” Pitino said. “When you get everybody clicking at the same time, we can be a really good team.”
It also helps when Murphy plays like one of the best in the Big Ten. He scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds Saturday for his 18th double-double of the season. He leads the Big Ten in rebounding and is fourth in the country.
Murphy is playing with a sense of urgency over the second half of the Big Ten schedule, knowing this is his last shot to play in an NCAA Tournament. Over his last nine games, he’s averaging 16.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. He took his game to another level against the Hoosiers last Saturday, highlighted by a drop step for a two-handed dunk after a loose ball in the second half.
He was also named the Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday.
“That was a two-hour commercial to NBA scouts, professional scouts, to talk about how hard he plays and how much he competes,” Pitino said. “It’s great to see from him.”
Several players have had impressive stretches over the course of the season, but none of it matters if the Gophers don’t finish strong. The last five games are Michigan at home, at Rutgers Sunday, at Northwestern, hosting Purdue and traveling to Maryland. That’s three of the top four teams in the Big Ten over the next three weeks.
If Minnesota is going to get to Selection Sunday without a major sweat, it’ll need to beat either Michigan or Purdue at home. The Gophers also need to win at least one of the three road games left. Get to 10-10 in the league, and it will be tough to keep them from the Big Dance regardless of what happens at the Big Ten Tournament.
They should have the confidence that it can be done. They led by 13 at Purdue in the second half. They beat Wisconsin in Madison, they had a double-digit lead on Maryland in the second half and lost at Michigan at the buzzer. The most important stretch of the season starts Thursday night against the Wolverines.
“It’s going to be a dogfight. It’s going to be a war. Both teams are playing for a lot. A lot of implications for tomorrow,” Murphy said. “We’ve just got to keep our heads in it, and it’s a good thing everybody is healthy and focused and ready.”