Why the Gophers are a longshot for NCAA tournament

In a much-improved third season for coach Ben Johnson, his Gophers men's basketball team has a chance with three regular-season games left to finish with a winning Big Ten record for the first time since 2017.

There was a time when Big Ten teams finishing .500 or better in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball would seemingly be a lock to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Gophers have made the NCAAs seven times in the last 25 seasons, but only twice in those years did they finish above .500 in conference play.

History isn't on their side this year, though.

Johnson's Gophers (17-11, 8-9 Big Ten) enter Saturday's home game against Penn State with quite the uphill climb to get on the NCAA tourney bubble. Reasons for that include a bad year for the Big Ten overall, the Gophers' weak early schedule and the team's 1-7 record in Quad 1 games, perhaps the top metric used by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

"It's a lot to overcome," CBSSports bracket analyst Jerry Palm said. "I like Ben. I think he's done a good job with this group. Need more."

More big wins would help – and fast. The problem is that won't be possible in the next two home games. Penn State and next Wednesday's foe Indiana made the NCAAs last season, but they aren't projected to this year. They rank outside the top 90 of the NET, the NCAA's evaluation tool in the selection process.

As of Friday, the Gophers were 76th in the NET. The worst NET ranking ever for a team receiving an NCAA at-large bid was Rutgers at 77 in 2022. The Scarlet Knights got in with six Quad 1 wins and a NET strength of schedule 35th nationally. Minnesota's strength of schedule is 78th.

The Gophers' fourth straight Quad 1 opportunity was missed in Wednesday's 105-97 loss at No. 13 Illinois. That makes the regular-season finale March 9 at Northwestern basically a must-win for the Gophers going into the Big Ten tournament.

"They have been playing well," Big Ten Network analyst and former coach Bruce Weber said after the Illinois loss. "If they have a nice stretch run and in the tournament in Minneapolis – who knows what could happen?"

Schedule hurts résumé

No matter which NCAA tournament bubble team you compare to the Gophers, every one of them will have a tougher nonconference schedule ranking than 361st nationally. Only Air Force's schedule is worse in all of Division I.

There's nothing the Gophers can do about that now.

Before the season, Johnson and his staff backed out of the Main Event in Las Vegas to host a few major conference foes — and those games never came together.

As poor as the non-league slate was with nine home games against smaller conferences, the Gophers had a Quad 1 neutral-site matchup against San Francisco on Nov. 26, but they lost by 18 points at the Golden State Warriors arena. This came 10 days after the Gophers blew a 20-point lead vs. Missouri. The Tigers are 8-20, including 15 consecutive losses and winless in the SEC.

Down year for Big Ten

Purdue is in contention for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row, but the Big Ten has basically been the Boilermakers and everyone else.

Five Big Ten teams were ranked in the top 25 this season, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Michigan State. The Spartans dropped out after a 1-4 league start. Northwestern was ranked only for one week. The Badgers were ranked as high as No. 6 but then lost six of their next eight games.

Traditional Big Ten powers Ohio State, Michigan and Indiana aren't even bubble teams this year. Neither is Iowa, which has made four straight NCAAs.

"Pretty bad year collectively," said Palm, who had six Big Ten teams in his bracket projections earlier this week after eight and nine made it the last two years, respectively.

Fewer top teams meant fewer chances for the Gophers to help themselves. They went 0-3 vs. ranked teams this year, including a 61-59 home loss to Wisconsin. .

The Gophers have come a long way since last season. A year ago, they were 1-16 in the Big Ten at this point. They're not giving up on NCAA tournament hopes yet, though.

A win streak to finish Big Ten play isn't far-fetched. And anything can happen with the Big Ten tourney at Target Center, with an automatic bid at stake in the Gophers' backyard.

"Our biggest thing now is we want to end the season the right way with momentum going into the Big Ten tournament," Johnson said. "These guys have played good enough basketball, I want them to focus on not having any regrets."