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Bubble bursting: Gopher men, women play critical games Thursday

Both are in action Thursday night.

The newest, biggest games of the season are Thursday for the Gopher men's and women's basketball teams. 

First up, the women play at Rutgers at 5:30 p.m., followed by the men on the road at Northwestern at 8 p.m. It's impossible to say both teams are facing must-wins, but it's as close as it gets if either hopes to receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. 

Lindsay Whalen's squad has played like a tourney team, winning six of its last seven with the only loss coming in heartbreaking fashion on the road against a top-10 Maryland team. 

It's hard to know if the NCAA selection committee will give Minnesota any points for putting up a huge battle against the top team in the Big Ten, but we can all worry less about that if the Gophers find a way to beat Rutgers, which would effectively give them a sweep of the season series. 

Rutgers will undoubtedly be out for blood having been upset by the Gophers at Williams Arena Feb. 3. At the time, Rutgers was leading the Big Ten. 

One indication that the Gophers are gaining national respect is the four votes they received in this week's AP Top 25 Poll, which is one more than Rutgers received, although Rutgers got eight votes to none for the Gophers in the Coaches Poll. 

A win for Minnesota would be huge. Not only would they take down the Big Ten's third-place team, they'd get to 20 wins on the season and above .500 (8-8 currently) in the conference. 

Minnesota weakness is obviously its 106th-ranked RPI, which reveals just how easy their non-conference schedule was. 

That said, Minnesota didn't lose any of those games and they've proved able to compete with top teams like Syracuse, Maryland and Rutgers. 

Gopher men need to add wins

If they can figure out a way to beat Northwestern's pesky zone defense they should be able to come back to Minnesota with a much-needed win. 

Richard Pitino's team has dropped seven of the last eight and is listed as one of the "first four out" in Joe Lunardi's bracketology at ESPN.com. That means they're a bubble team, and at 17-11 overall and 7-10 in Big Ten play, they need some wins. 

However, Jerry Palm of CBS Sports still thinks the Gophers have done enough to earn a 10-seed in the tourney. 

Following Thursday's game at Northwestern the Gophers host No. 14 Purdue on Tuesday and then wrap up the regular season next Thursday at No. 17 Maryland. Those are teams on the rise and wins over them would solidify Minnesota's tourney hopes. 

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