For several teams the difference between making the NCAA Tournament and being relegated to the NIT is incredibly slim. Sometimes the difference is as simple as winning or losing a particular game. Sometimes the turning point is an injury to a key player. And for some teams the difference between being in and being out comes down to a single possession.
This year's Gopher squad was as close to making the Tourney as any that I can remember who did not actually get in. We are the #1 overall seed in the NIT and were probably just a win away from sneaking in. It is not always easy to pinpoint the exact moment when our post-season fate was decided. Clearly the Big Ten Tournament loss to Wisconsin is when our bubble burst, but what was the defining game or possession that got us to where we are today. I think there are three possible answers to that question and I'll leave it up to you guys to determine what the right answer is.
The Northwestern Game's Final Possession
A difficult lay-up by Deandre Mathieu was missed but the rebound was secured by Mo Walker who had a pretty clean look to snag a 1-point win. It was also missed as the buzzer sounded and Northwestern game the Gophers probably their worst loss of the year.
Does making that final lay-up or put-back change the post-season fate for the Gophers? Maybe. It still doesn't give us an extra win over a high RPI team, which was the weakest link in our resume. But it does push us to .500 in the Big Ten, it gives us a 20th win, it improves our RPI and it erases a home loss to a +100 RPI team. With as close as I think we were any win may have been the difference.
Andre Hollins Injury
Some years the NCAA Selection Committee stresses that injuries to key players is a factor that they consider. If a team goes through a particular rough patch while one of their key players is out due to injury, those losses may not weigh as heavily. Well this year's Gopher squad went through a stretch of winable games without their leading scorer. It happened on the first possession of the Wisconsin game...
The Gophers did go on to win this game and was one of their wins that got them into the conversation anyway. But following this game was a 1-point home loss to Northwestern, 4-point road loss at Nebraska and a 3OT loss at Purdue (where Andre was playing but was well shy of 100%). Do the Gophers win one or two or all three of those games with a healthy Hollins?
Missed Opportunities For Another Big Win
I do believe the biggest hole in our resume was lack of more top 50 wins. Our strength of schedule was outstanding but we need to have more wins, particularly against good teams. And there were a few realistic opportunities for wins of this caliber.
- Syracuse in the Maui Invitational - down just 2 points with 2:00 remaining
- Michigan in The Barn - Led for much of the second half as Michigan was playing without Glenn Robinson III. Lost by 3.
- At Michigan State - led by 5 at halftime and stretched it to 10 in the second half before Michigan State clawed back in and eventually won in overtime.
Each of those games were winable, particularly the two Big Ten games, and they would have been a huge boost to the resume.
You tell me which one of these situations, missed opportunities or unfortunate circumstances most lead to the Gophers earning a big to the NIT rather than the Big Dance. Likely a reversal of any one of these would have been enough. When you leave yourself without any margin for error, you have to come through at a much higher rate than other teams who have done enough to be comfortably in. I believe the Gophers are probably where they belong and very nearly did enough to get themselves in, but it was just a bit short.
The NIT is where we are today. There is still opportunity to play more games, have some fun and earn themselves a trip to Manhattan.