The Associated Press and USA Today release their weekly Division I college basketball rankings every Monday. It gives a good indicator, especially this time of year, where teams are at before we head into March Madness.
But rankings, as always, are just a number that don’t actually mean anything. Fans of the Gopher basketball program had varied reactions Monday when both polls came out. Minnesota, despite seven straight Big Ten wins, was not placed among the nation’s top 25 in either poll. The Gophers were essentially 26th after receiving the most votes in the AP poll. In the USA Today Coaches Poll, they received 10 votes to essentially be 32nd in the country.
The Gophers (22-7, 10-6) end the regular season with games against Nebraska Thursday and at Wisconsin Sunday. If they win both, they’re a lock to be ranked heading into the Big Ten Tournament. If they split, there probably won’t be much movement. Regardless, they’ll go into the league tournament stress-free when it comes to an NCAA Tournament bid.
Here’s four reasons why Gophers fans shouldn’t care that they weren’t among the top 25 on Monday.
Maryland Win Locked Up NCAA Tournament Bid
Minnesota hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in the Richard Pitino era. The Gophers last trip to the Big Dance was in Tubby Smith’s final season, and they even got a first-round win over UCLA. When the Gophers won comfortably 89-75 at Maryland last week, it gave them their ninth Big Ten win and essentially locked up an NCAA Tournament invite.
Pitino told his players in the locker room after there is no more talk about getting in the Big Dance, it’s now about seeding. And they didn’t come down from the big win. They handled Penn State on Saturday at Williams Arena and were never really threatened in an 81-71 victory. It gave the Gophers 10 league wins. Minnesota hasn’t finished above .500 in the Big Ten in 11 years. It’s hard for fans to fathom that the Gophers are a lock for the Big Dance in February, before the Big Ten Tournament. After going 2-16 in the league last year, they’re guaranteed to finish no worse than 10-8. It’s something worth celebrating.
7 Straight Wins, Hottest Team in the Big Ten
With Saturday’s win over Penn State, the Gophers won their seventh straight Big Ten game. The Gophers have the longest win streak in the league, and one of the longest in the country. In the grind of conference play, that’s hard to do. The national experts are calling Minnesota one of the hottest programs in the country, and a team nobody wants to play in either the Big Ten Tournament or the NCAA Tournament.
With two regular season games left, the biggest goal is to finish in the top four in the Big Ten. That gives them a guaranteed double-bye, meaning the Gophers are automatically in the quarterfinals. They likely get there with a win over Nebraska Thursday night, regardless of the outcome against Wisconsin. But win both, and there’s a legitimate shot to compete for the Big Ten title. That’s quite the change from being used to the Wednesday play-in games, when there’s not much at stake in a lost season.
Rankings Mean Nothing
First of all, enjoy the journey. It matters far more than any number in front of a name. Coach Richard Pitino said as much Monday on his weekly radio show. There are six criteria the NCAA Division I basketball committee uses to determine seeding for the Big Dance. The weekly AP poll and USA Today Coaches Poll are not among them.
What are considered are the RPI, a program’s strength of schedule, their BPI and the complete season’s body of work. The Gophers have a lot of quality wins, and wins on the road. Most importantly, there’s not one bad loss on the schedule. The only one that can even be argued is at Penn State. But the Nittany Lions have also given the top teams in the Big Ten trouble. The Gophers are in great shape, with two games left in the league and the Big Ten Tournament, to earn a high seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Gophers Set Up For Sweet 16 Run
A year ago, fans wanted Richard Pitino fired after a miserable 8-23 season that was plagued by issues away from the court. A year later, he’s the favorite to win the Big Ten Coach of the Year. The Gophers control their own destiny by winning their last two games to be a top four seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s quite the accomplishment when preseason predictions had them anywhere from 10th to 13th. There’s life in the Barn again after most fans lost interest during last year’s disaster.
Make a run in the Big Ten Tournament, and you give yourself a chance at a favorable seed in the Big Dance. Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy are playing at an All-Big Ten level, and the Gophers are a different team when Reggie Lynch is free of foul trouble. The team is as balanced as it’s ever been, with five players scoring in double figures. Four of those are starters. With their defensive efficiency and balanced offense, the Gophers are built to make a run to the Sweet 16.
Who would’ve thought that a year ago? Enjoy the journey, it’s the fun part.