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Minnesota Basketball: Are the Gophers going to be on the Bubble?

Gopher hoops is better, but can they get into the NCAA Tournament?

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

There is good reason to be pleased with this year’s Gopher basketball season. Last season was measurably a disaster. Ben Johnson’s second season saw just nine total wins and only 2 in the Big Ten and the lowest KenPom ranking since the efficiency ranking was tracked in 1997 (and it was the lowest by far). But it wasn’t just the record, the team was really hard to watch. Last year was ugly, probably the worst Gopher team in my lifetime.

But this year has seen a nice turnaround. The entertainment value is significantly better and by every metric, this team is better.

But as a fan of college basketball, the next obvious question is this.

Can the Gophers get into the NCAA Tournament?

As we know, that’s not an easy question to answer. Obviously, if you win enough games, then you take the question out of the hands of the selection committee. But despite being markedly better, this team’s ceiling appears to be that dreaded bubble.

So what will it take to get in? As someone who loves the bracket, bracketology and digging deep into the bubble, I chose to dive deep into this

Let’s assume that 12 Big Ten wins and you’re certainly in the NCAA Tournament. Struggle to only 8 Big Ten wins and you are certainly not going to the Big Dance. Since the Big Ten expanded the conference schedule to 20 games, here is how teams with 9, 10 or 11 wins have fared (with details below).

  • 9-11 record - 4 teams have made it, 3 teams have not
  • 10-10 record - 4 teams have made it, 1 team did not (Rutgers 2023)
  • 11-9 record - 6 teams have made it, 1 team did not (Michigan 2023)

Record, both overall and within the conference, are a small part of the equation. So much more goes into a team’s resume. Strength of schedule, NET ranking, record against top teams, etc.

Last year, Rutgers was probably bumped because of one really bad, Big Ten loss to Minnesota. Their non-conference SOS was 196th, finished with a 3-7 record down the stretch and going 4-7 in Quad 1 games.

Michigan was interesting because they actually played a really challenging non-conference schedule. The problem was that they lost all of those tough games going 2-12 in Quad 1 games and finished with just a 17-15 overall record.

But generally, if a team gets to 11 Big Ten wins they will have those other resume builders to go along with the record. Unless there’s a significant outlying factor. And the 2023-24 Gophers, have a significant outlying factor. The team’s strength of schedule is incredibly weak. Of our non-conference wins, Florida Gulf Coast would be our strongest win. That is not a resume-building win. The two opportunities we had to help our postseason chances (even if just a tiny bit) were losses to Missouri and San Francisco.

The good news is that they can make up for it but earning as many quality wins in the Big Ten as they can.

Should the Gophers manage to win 7 more games, finishing with a 9-11 Big Ten record and 18 wins overall, I don’t think that they stand a chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Again, there’s still room for controlling your destiny a little by making a significant run in the Big Ten Tournament. Last season, Penn State finished 10-10 and was right on the cut line before they made a run to the Big Ten title game and secured a bid. For Minnesota, every single win over a quality opponent is valuable.

But what if they finish 10-10? Things get more interesting, but still probably not going to be good enough. Here’s where I’ll revisit our non-conference strength of schedule and inform you that Minnesota ranked 362nd in Division 1 basketball (according to KenPom). There are 362 teams in Division 1 this year. It was weak. So 10-10? Probably not going to be good enough. With the Big Ten tourney caveat still in effect. Now, throw in a win over Purdue, don’t lose to any bad teams and all of your losses are close...maybe you’re still in the mix. My bracketology-gut tells me that 10-10 puts us in the bubble conversation, but not seriously a danger to other bubble teams.

Now things get interesting if we can go 11-9. Is that going to be enough on its own? This would get us to 20 wins, but this is still not good enough just on the surface. In this scenario, the Gophers cannot get blown out by Purdue or Wisconsin. Showing that we are not capable of being competitive against the better teams would be bad. Also, they cannot lose to Penn State. The Nittany Lions are struggling mightily and for Minnesota a bad loss hurts far more than a good win helps. After that, you’ll win some you shouldn’t and lose a couple where you’re favored. You just have to find a way to get to 11 wins. Then the rest of the mediocre bubble and the Big Ten Tourney results are going to be what determines your fate.

So the next question is this...Can they get 9 more wins?

Games you have to win are PSU, @PSU, Rutgers and Indiana. Hard to envision 9 more wins if you lose those 3 home games and Penn State on the road. And I promise you, I’m not nearly delusional enough to think that there is any Big Ten game that we can win just because we are the better team.

I’ll assume losses to @Purdue, Wisconsin and @MSU. And as previously stated, these games cannot be blowouts. This leaves 10 games and they’ll have to win 5 of them. When you type it out, you see that this is a tall order.

Home (5) - Maryland, Iowa, NW, MSU, OSU
Away (5) - Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern

As it stands now, we’d be the favorite in just 2 of those 10.

Am I putting the cart before the horse here? Absolutely. This is a college basketball junkie who loves the Gophers and wants desperately to see them playing the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Realistically, this is going to be a long-shot for the Gophers in 2024. I’m thrilled that they are improved, competent and competitive. Being a part of the bubble conversation would be a massive win for the program this season. Then the challenge begins to retain talent and get better in the offseason. But now I’m projecting again.

The fact is that this team is fun to watch and Ben Johnson has done a remarkable turnaround so far. This is a step in the right direction. Dreaming about the NCAA Tournament maybe just a touch beyond realistic at this point, but it is not impossible.