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With margin for error exhausted, Gophers now in true must-win mode

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Northwestern is first test in the new landscape

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Northwestern Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

And just like that the Gophers are now playing for their lives. What used to be a situation where they controlled their own destiny, the team now has erased any margin for error the rest of they way if they want to be considered for the NCAA Tournament, thanks to two untimely home losses to Iowa and Indiana. With five games left, Minnesota now must win out and probably grab a game in the Big Ten Tournament if they want to be on the right side of the bubble.

The Gophers came into a crucial homestand with the opportunity to add two much-needed victories against beatable teams. Instead, the team clammed up down the stretch of both games, shot poorly and let both opponents off the hook in extremely winnable games. The inconsistency was maddening. Of course, being a fan of a team who lives life on the bubble is not for the faint of heart. There’s a reason the Gophers are on the bubble: they win as often as they lose. They beat good teams and lose to beatable opponents. This has been their destiny since day one.

Still, it’s hard not to look back at the what-ifs along they way and envision a different scenario. Now Minnesota has to win on the road in places like Kohl Center and Assembly Hall while holding serve at home. The opportunities are still technically there; the optimism is not.

Essentials:

Opponent:

Northwestern Wildcats (1-14, 6-19)

Date and Time:

Sunday, February 23 @ 2 p.m. CT

Location:

Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, Ill.)

TV:

BTN

Radio:

KFAN 100.3-FM

Tell me more about the opponent.

If there was ever a “reprieve” on Minnesota’s gauntlet of a schedule it’s another date with the lowly Northwestern Wildcats. Yes, it’s still a road game, and Welsh-Ryan Arena has never been kind to the Gophers, but the Wildcats are downright bad this year. Their lone conference win came at home against fellow cellar-dweller Nebraska, and they are on a 10-game winning streak. If ever there was a chance to stop the bleeding, now is it.

But this is a conference game, and the Wildcats are hardly pushovers. Three of their five most recent defeats have been in single digits, they took Rutgers to overtime on the road, nearly slayed Illinois and gave Purdue a scare. They’ve also lost to Merrimack, Hartford and Radford this year. Yikes.

Freshman forward Miller Kopp is NU’s leading scorer, pacing a trio of double-digit scorers with 13.2 points per game. He shoots a lot of three pointers. Boo Buie and Pat Spencer each contribute 10.6 points per contest as well.

To their credit, Northwestern actually leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth in the nation with the fewest total turnovers while ranking 11th in the country and second in the Big Ten averaging just 10.6 turnovers per game. So they take care of the ball, they just can’t score.

Predictions

It’s all hands on deck now that Minnesota has put itself in an especially precarious position. Could a win over Northwestern help press the reset button? At the end of the day this team needs to shoot better if it wants to win, so maybe a momentum-building performance on the road will kick-start a late season run. The body language against Indiana was especially concerning, so you also wonder if this team has simply given up. A loss here would truly kill all hopes for a tournament berth and could also undermine NIT hopes.

I’m taking the Gophers by 7 in this one. Northwestern is bad.