What it'll take for the Gophers to reach the NCAA tournament

Close out the regular season strong and then make a run in the Big Ten tournament.
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So you’re saying there’s a chance? The Gophers kept their slim NCAA tournament hopes alive, ending a three-game losing streak in resounding fashion by beating the Northwestern Wildcats 83-57 in Evanston Sunday. 

Daniel Oturu had 22 points and 12 rebounds, Marcus Carr had 18 and 7 assists, and Gabe Kalscheur and Peyton Willis both added 14 as the team’s big four combined for 68 points and shot an absurd 14-27 on three-pointers.

The win came against a far inferior opponent – the Wildcats entered the game with a 1-14 Big Ten record – and was far from a perfect performance – Minnesota lost the turnover battle, went just 60% from the free-throw line, and had another lane violation on defense – but on Sunday afternoon the team displayed much of what will be needed if they want to get into the big dance come March.

All they have to do is continue to do the following things:

Feed Daniel Oturu. “Give your all-American candidate the ball” is hardly insightful, but too often recently Oturu has taken a backseat in the offense as the team has looked for threes. 

That changed Sunday, as the big man was fed early and delivered accordingly, finishing with another double-double on an uber-efficient 8-11 shooting performance that included three dunks and three triples. 

That success also begat confidence in others aspects of the game, with him running the fast break, chasing down loose balls, making a few nice passes out of the post, and playing aggressive on defense, at one point blocking shots on two of three Northwestern possessions near end of first half. 

Oturu will have to play a big role in the postseason push, but he’s good enough to do so.

Ball movement. The Gophers went 14-30 from three on the afternoon, tying their high on the year as Oturu, Carr, Kalscheur, and Willis all hit at least three from distance. 

Part of this came from open shots that haven’t been going down finally falling, but the larger part was the team taking the threes that came as they worked their offense rather than focusing on them on every possession. This started with Carr, who fed his teammates for finishes all game, none prettier than a cross-court skip pass to Willis who buried an open three, but the rest of the guards also shared this mindset, with Kalscheur racking up a season high 5 assists and Willis (3) and Tre’ Williams (2) also chipping in. 

Keep Gabe Kalscheur’s confidence high. I’ve shared variations of this stat before, but Minnesota is 8-4 in games Kalscheur hits at least three threes and 6-2 in games when he shoots 40% or higher from the field. 

One player does not make a team, but the Gophers are, for all intents and purposes, a completely different team when Kalscheur is going. There’s obviously no magic formula to keep a shooter hot, but extra passes and patience on the offensive end is a start.

Hit the glass. This one is pretty simple. In the games they’ve won the U has generally won the rebounding battle, and in the games they’ve lost they’ve gotten outplayed on the boards. 

The former was the case Sunday, as Minnesota used a 44-26 rebounding advantage to control the game. The U grabbed another 10 offensive rebounds after Wednesday’s 13, and continuing to hit the offensive boards will be critical moving forward.

Take advantage of the schedule. No game is easy in the Big Ten, and after taking care of business against Northwestern the Gophers get Maryland, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Nebraska to close out the regular season. 

That’s actually not as daunting as it seems. Maryland, the toughest remaining opponent, is at Williams Arena. Recent collapses notwithstanding, Minnesota is still 10-4 at Williams Arena and Maryland is 4-5 on the road after Sunday's loss at Ohio State. 

The toughest road game is at Wisconsin, but they should have no trouble getting amped for the border battle. Indiana is also a notoriously tough place to play (see Sunday's win over No. 9 Penn State), but the two teams will be playing for the second time in as many weeks. And then Nebraska, winless on the road, comes to town.

The pundits are saying Minnesota will likely need to win out to make the big dance, but winning three of four would put them at 16-14, 10-10 in the nation’s toughest league and keep them at least in contention heading into conference tournament play. It certainly won’t be easy to pull off, but it’s not out of the question.

The quest will continue on Wednesday against first-place Maryland. They’ll tip from the Barn at 8 p.m.

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