Plenty of time remains before the Gophers will be considered destined for the NIT, but if the season ended that's where the the bracketologists would have them going, and that's bad news considering the Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palms of the world do their best to mirror the thoughts of the NCAA selection committee.
In short, Sunday's 18-point loss at home to 11th-ranked Michigan State was a missed opportunity for Minnesota to make a statement. The result is a fresh set up bracket projections that don't include the Gophers.
CBS Sports' Jerry Palm makes no mention of the 11-9 Gophers, not even giving them mention among the first four teams out of his field of 68. Those four, who are considered teams on the cusp of getting in, are Tennessee, Xavier, Rhode Island and Michigan.
Another limiting factor is Minnesota's falling RPI, which is down nine spots to 58th in the country. Iowa, Penn State, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Michigan State and Maryland are all ahead of the Gophers in RPI rankings, which can serve as a big factor for teams on the tournament bubble.
A factor that could improve the Gophers' standing with the selection committee is where they stand in the KenPom rankings. Entering play Monday, Minnesota is 39th overall with their strength of schedule sitting at No. 2 in the country, meaning they've played, arguably, the second-toughest schedule of any team in the nation.
“Give credit to Michigan state, they just physically wore us down,” said coach Richard Pitino, succinctly, after the game.
What plagued the Gophers Sunday
Slow start. Minnesota has started slow a number of times this year, most recently needing a huge second half run to come back from a nine-point halftime deficit to beat Ohio State on Thursday. They attempted the same trick against Michigan State, but the Spartans are too good a team to spot a big lead. The U scored a season-low 22 first half points, encapsulated by stretch where they went scoreless for more than five minutes, turning the ball over four times, as Michigan State used a 16-2 run to take control of the game and never look back.
Cold shooting. The Gophers were just 16-57, 28% from the field, going an atrocious 5-28, 18% from the three-point line. Carr was 3-14, Kalscheur was 4-12, and Willis was 0-6. Their first half low was powered by going just 9-32 from the field, 3-18 from beyond the arc. Not to be outdone, they went more than seven minutes without a made field goal in the second half, and were just 7-25 after the break, missing their last seven shots. At least they were consistent.
“They had some open shots, they just missed those shots,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, echoing a theme for the Gophers that is becoming far too consistent.
Stupid mistakes. Whether it was Carr fouling Winston on a made three to start the second half, turning an energetic crowd and an eight-point lead into a deflated one and a twelve-point deficit, Willis following up a Carr three that cut the lead to seven by sagging too far off Rocket Watts, who buried a three to bring it back to ten, Oturu (again) failing to call out a screen and getting Kalscheur leveled by 6-8, 250-pound Xavier Tillman, Kalscheur attempting to throw an entry pass over a jumping Aaron Henry, who intercepted it nearly immediately after its release, or Carr missing a breakaway dunk, Minnesota simply made too many errors to beat a very good team. Just one of those games.
Losing the star battle. Winston and Tillman are the conference’s best guard-big combo, and they showed why, again, today. Winston finished with 18 points and 8 assists on 7-14 shooting while Tillman had 17 points and 10 rebounds on 5-9 shooting, two-and-a-half weeks after going for 27 and 19, respectively. Carr, who had 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists, struggled from the floor all game, getting out-dueled by Winston, who finished +24 while on the court.
Oturu, who led the team with 19 points, spent the day battling foul trouble, finishing with just six rebounds, tied for his low in conference play, and committed four turnovers, finishing with a -18 on the day.
“He’s really big and strong and tough,” Pitino said of Tillman, one of the few big men in the Big Ten who has held his own against Oturu.
As for the positives, the Gophers mostly held their own against the Big Ten’s best rebounding team, losing the battle on the boards just 39-35 and winning it on the offensive end, 13-9.
They got to the free-throw line 18 times in the second half, making 14 of them, after going just 1-2 in the first. Gabe Kalscheur had 15 points, tying his high in Big Ten play, and drilled back-to-back threes early in the second half, a clear window into his talent and hopefully a sign of things to come. And Williams Arena was easily the loudest it has been all year, a reminder of the home-court advantage the Gophers should have going forward.
Another chance in front of their fans will have to wait, though, as next up is a Thursday trip to Champaign to face Illinois, winners of four in a row and currently tied for first atop the conference with Michigan State. There really are no breaks in the Big Ten.