(Ed Note: Please welcome rencito to the TDG (is that redundant or not?) publishing family. PJS and I have asked him to be a contributor and we are looking forward to having another person on board to help keep the content fresh.)
Our dear Rodents are left with three regular season games on the schedule before the Big Ten Conference Tournament. We have three Jekyll and Hyde teams to play--not dissimilar from our season.
The Illinois Fighting Illini (22-6, 10-5, RPI 16)
The last time Minnesota played against Illinois, we handed them their worst loss of the year. Fast forward nearly a month and the Illini have held their own in conference play while the Gophers are trying to avoid the downward spiral. Since our last date in the Barn, Illinois has beaten Purdue at home and Ohio State on the road. They also had an even more ugly loss at home to Penn State than the egg they laid at the Barn (pun intended...sorry). The Illini's loss to the Gophers could be dismissed as a fluke, but losing at home to Penn State in that fashion showed that they are a team that can play just as awful as the Gophers have over the past few weeks. Illinois seems to own us, but we rid ourselves of that curse in Minneapolis. I don't think anyone is giving the Gophers much chance in this game; there is plenty of reason not to looking at their road performances this year.
The Wisconsin Badgers (16-10, 8-7, RPI 27)
Sorry...it is hard for me to even write down their name. When I drive through Wisconsin (because seriously, there is hardly a reason to have that as your final destination) I make sure I stop in Stillwater to fill up for gas so that I support Minnesota's economy over Wisconsin's--replete with a full gas can in the trunk to use on the way back. For those Wisconsinites who ended up going to school in Minnesota, I applaud you for making the right decision.
The Badgers have had a rollercoaster ride of a season. Before we met them in mid-January, the Badgers were a highly regarded team looking for another successful Big Ten campaign. After a 3-0 start in conference play, the Badgers lost six Big Ten games in a row before winning their next five and then dropping their most recent tilt in East Lansing. Wisconsin's RPI is a bit of a mirage. They have been buoyed by the fourth strongest schedule in the country. They have played UConn, Virginia Tech, Marquette, and Texas outside the conference. The Virginia Tech game was the only one of the four they won with additional wins over Wisc-Green Bay and then Illinois and Ohio State in the conference to add to their resume. One could certainly make the case that Minnesota has a better body of work than Wisconsin despite having the lower RPI.
The Michigan Wolverines (16-11, 7-8, RPI 56)
The maize and blue probably made the most noise for the Big Ten Conference in non-conference action by beating both UCLA and Duke. Their best win in the conference was a ten point victory over the Illini. They boast a relatively easy win over the Gophers in Ann Arbor. However, the Wolverines are a maddeningly inconsistent team that is just 2-7 away from Chrisler Arena. That being said, they are still hard to predict and certainly have the talent to play with anyone...or lose to anyone as they overcame large deficits to squeak by Savannah State and Indiana, and most recently lost to the Hawkeyes. Michigan is definitely on the outside looking in right now. Their remaining games: Purdue, @Wisconsin, @Minnesota.
For what it is worth, realtimerpi.com has recently added some predictive data to its site. They predict the Gophers to lose in Champaign while beating both Wisconsin and Michigan at home. I think we would take those results and with it a pretty safe bet for the Big Dance.
Currently, realtimerpi.com is projecting us as a #8 seed facing off against Dayton in the first round opposite #1 seed Duke. Joe Lundardi has us as a #11 squaring off against Gonzaga in round one in Philadelphia opposite--get this--#3 seed Villanova. That would be a sure home game for the Wildcats in the second round.
Minnesota currently has an RPI ranking of 37. This standing gives us good reason to believe we will be in the tournament if we stay around this range. Last year, the last team to make the tournament (the team with the lowest RPI that did not get an automatic bid) was...the Kentucky Wildcats at #58. The Wildcats did manage to go 12-5 within their conference which surely helped. Other teams that made it in with much less impressive conference records: St. Joseph's (#50), Baylor (#49), Kansas St (#47), and St Mary's (#45).
I think we are in a much better position than most people realize despite the rough stretch we have endured lately. If we go 2-1 down the stretch we should be fine. Judging other teams' schedules, that would most likely create a four way tie for 4th place among Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State. We already own splits with PSU and OSU. We have a chance to sweep Wisconsin, so I like where we are at right now. We really don't deserve a tournament berth if we don't play well against these teams down the stretch--especially considering we get Wisconsin and Michigan at home.