By Jeff Wald

Selection Sunday was a fun day to be a Minnesota basketball fan. Think about that for a second. It’s not very often Gophers fans can say that.

The team flew home after losing to eventual Big Ten champion Michigan on Saturday in the conference semifinals. They gathered Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium to watch the NCAA Selection Show. For once, the Gophers didn’t have to sweat a bid. With a 24-9 record, 11-7 Big Ten regular season record and a strong RPI as well as good strength of schedule, the Gophers knew they were a lock for the Big Dance.

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It was just a matter of the seed and where they were headed. It’s Richard Pitino’s first NCAA Tournament appearance with Minnesota.

Now that we know, can this Gophers team get out of the first weekend and head to the Sweet 16? Here’s four reasons why it’s possible.

gopher basketball1 Sweet 16? 4 Reasons The Gophers Can Get There

(credit: CBS)

Favorable Draw

It’s a split among the basketball experts to determine if the Gophers got a good draw or not. Minnesota is the No. 5 seed in the South Region. The Gophers will face No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee State (30-4). The game will be played Thursday afternoon in Milwaukee, Wis., and it’s where coach Richard Pitino hoped the Gophers would play. It’s not a far drive from the Twin Cities, and there should be plenty of Maroon and Gold in the stands when the Gophers take the court.

If they can beat Middle Tennessee State, the Gophers would face the Butler/Winthrop winner on Saturday for a trip to the Sweet 16. Neither of those opponents should scare Minnesota if it advances to Saturday. It’s not impossible to think the Gophers could be playing in the second weekend. That’s quite the switch from last year’s 8-23 misery. But many are picking the Blue Raiders for the upset, so you can bet the Gophers won’t be taking them lightly.

Big Dance All About Match-Ups

After the first few top seeds, the NCAA Tournament will have a lot of close games. The winners are usually determined by the match-up, and which team executes its game plan better. Gophers fans are a bit nervous to face Middle Tennessee State, since it beat Michigan State last year as a No. 15 seed. The Blue Raiders top three players are two seniors and a junior. JaCorey Williams, the junior, leads them at 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Giddy Potts scores 15.8 points and Reggie Upshaw scores more than 14. The Blue Raiders like to run and play fast, so it will be a defensive challenge for Minnesota.

The Gophers appear to have more depth, at least from a scoring standpoint. Nate Mason, Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer all average double figures in scoring. Reggie Lynch is right there at 8.4 points per game. The Gophers will need to win with defense and have three days to adjust without Akeem Springs, who suffered an Achilles injury in the Big Ten Tournament. They’ll need Bakary Konate, Michael Hurt and Ahmad Gilbert to provide depth off the bench. They could even bring Stephon Sharp off the bench if McBrayer or Mason get in foul trouble or are tired.

gettyimages 634328410 Sweet 16? 4 Reasons The Gophers Can Get There

(credit: David Berding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Early Success Led To Higher Expectations

Gophers fans really had no idea what to expect coming into the season after last year’s 8-23 debacle. It had to be better, because it couldn’t be any worse. A 12-1 start in non-conference play helped, but fans really hadn’t bought in yet. Minnesota had Michigan State beat in its conference opener before crumbling late, then we got excited after road wins at Purdue and Northwestern, both tournament teams. Gophers fans thought it would be another NIT year after five straight league losses put them at 3-6, but then they won eight straight games. That included wins over Michigan, at Maryland, at Rutgers and other home wins over Indiana and Iowa. This team was for real, and Williams Arena was packed again.

The players worked hard enough to win the fans back, and now expectations are higher. This season is already a success, regardless of Thursday’s result. But get to the Sweet 16 and you can build some huge momentum going into next year. The bar is now back to where it should be every year, and it’s about the program taking the next step. Winning an NCAA Tournament game, or two, would be absolutely critical for the program’s national exposure.

gettyimages 634330830 Sweet 16? 4 Reasons The Gophers Can Get There

(credit: David Berding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Most Talented Gophers Team In Years

Richard Pitino talked openly about how last year would be a struggle, and that was before anything took place off the court. They’ve bounced back from several setbacks, and keeping the biggest local recruit in 10 years home has been a big part of Minnesota’s success this season. Amir Coffey can do it all, between getting his own shot and setting up teammates. The Gophers’ starting five can play with virtually anybody in the country, if they stay healthy and avoid foul trouble. The questions come when they go to the bench, at least after Eric Curry.

Many expect the Gophers to be even better next season. The only legitimate player gone is Akeem Springs, but coming in are Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris. Davonte Fitzgerald also returns from a knee injury, and he was fighting for a starting spot this year before getting hurt.

For now, Gophers fans need to enjoy that we could wake up on Selection Sunday with zero stress. That doesn’t happen very often for this program. Enjoy the ride, they’ve already over-achieved this year. That said, the goal is the Sweet 16. The window is there if they can beat Middle Tennessee State. But for now, it’ll be fun to wake up excited for the first Thursday of the Big Dance. Merry Christmas, Gophers and basketball fans.


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