I do not believe it is.
I'm tempted to leave the post at that and let you talk amongst yourselves. But I feel the need to explain.
Obviously the Gophers are sitting with a 1-3 conference record and obviously that is not where we'd like to be right now. The perception is that we were a non-conference mirage and not ready to play with the best of the Big Ten. And certainly with a 1-3 record tonight's game "feels" like a must win.
But let me encourage you to avoid perception and feelings right now and look at this with some perspective. As is often the case this all comes down to expectations.
1 - If your expectations were to challenge for the Big Ten title and finish top 3 in the league then yes, this is absolutely a must win. I think heading into the season most of us realistically were hoping for a Big Ten record right around 12-6, good enough for a 4th or 5th place finish. And even with the 1-3 start we are still on pace for that. We are probably closer to an 11-7 team than we are a 12-6 team but this isn’t a must win. A loss tonight clearly would reduce our margin for error, but we can still win 11 Big Ten games (22 heading into the Big Ten tourney, two more wins than last year) and comfortably get into the NCAA Tournament without a win tonight.
2 – If we had lost at Wisconsin in early January, at Michigan State in late January and at Ohio State in February then nobody would blink an eye. The 1-3 start feels worse because the schedule is so heavily front loaded. Conversely we could very easily finish the season 7-2 and have all kinds of "momentum" heading into the Big Ten tournament.
3 - Losing those games all in a row sucks but 1 possession losses on the road in the Big Ten against the top of the league are actually common. It is not like we were blown out in any of our three losses. Surprisingly Ohio State was a one possession game. Wisconsin was a 2 point game with 40 seconds remaining and we forced a missed jump shot but didn’t secure the rebound. It is hard to win on the road in the Big Ten. Wisconsin’s two losses are close losses on the road at Illinois and Michigan State. Michigan State lost at Penn State. Ohio State and Purdue haven’t played anybody good on the road yet. This league is good and winning on the road is tough. We finally get a chance on our home court but once again, it isn’t a "must win."
Even if we lose tonight I hope you can all sleep easy tonight because there are still 10 more wins available on the schedule. We have 8 home games left and 5 of our 6 road games are actually quite winnable. We are done with Wisconsin and we don’t have to go to Illinois. If your expectations were to beat Ohio State on the road or Michigan State on the road then the problem isn’t our 1-3 record the problem is your own expectations. We all hoped that we’d steal one of the early road games but we didn’t.
In my world a must win game is one that we NEED, it is a difference maker. I promise you that in March we won’t look back on this game as the one that kept us out of the NCAA tournament. If we miss the big dance it will be because we dropped at least 2 games to non-tournament teams along the way, probably at home. It will not be because we lost a home game to a top 10 team. A win tonight would be a huge boost to our resume, but a loss does not eliminate us from anything.