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Gophers schedule has hurt them so far in bid for NCAA tourney

Gopher basketball coach Richard Pitino

MINNEAPOLIS—Five weeks ago, the Gophers men's basketball team entered a much-hyped Nov. 29 home game against the Miami Hurricanes with a 7-0 record and the No. 12 ranking in the country.

Darlings to a fan base that raised expectations after an NCAA tournament trip last season, the Gophers had created buzz of a deep March run.

Six weeks later — after losses to Miami, Arkansas and Nebraska — simply making the NCAA tournament is far from a foregone conclusion for Richard Pitino's squad as it resumes Big Ten play against Illinois on Wednesday night at Williams Arena.

Their 12-3 record is overshadowed by a 207th-ranked nonconference strength of schedule and a 2-3 mark against teams with a top-100 ratings percentage index (RPI), one of the metrics the selection committee uses.

"At this moment, they're the last team in the tournament," said Joe Lunardi, ESPN's bracketology guru who correctly projected 67 of the 68 teams in last season's NCAA tournament.

This season was supposed to be the best of the Pitino era, but now the Gophers need a solid second half just to get an at-large bid, Lunardi said.

And their task is made more difficult thanks to the Big Ten's conference-wide struggles.

Only two Big Ten teams — Michigan State and Purdue — have RPIs better than No. 47, part of why Lunardi has only four teams from the conference in his projected NCAA bracket. Last season, the Big Ten had seven.

"We're usually talking six, seven or eight Big Ten teams," Lunardi said, "not three, four or five."

That has left the Gophers, with an RPI of 53, in the unenviable spot of needing an impressive finish to the season just to reach the NCAA tournament. But on the eve of the team's third of 18 Big Ten games, Pitino insisted he wasn't concerned about his team's postseason prospects.

"There are 16 games to go," Pitino said. "Not even a little bit (worried)."

With Big Ten play resuming after the Gophers split conference games against Rutgers and Nebraska, Pitino has routinely touted his team's nonconference schedule as the best the Gophers have played since he took over the program in 2013.

As evidence, he points to games at Providence (No. 46 RPI), at Arkansas (No. 4), at home against Miami (No. 23) and vs. Alabama (No. 28) on a neutral court.

But Lunardi said that same nonconference schedule is one of the biggest detriments to Minnesota's tournament resume.

It is rated the 207th toughest nonconference slate by RPI and the 247th toughest by kenpom.com, an analytical site Pitino often checks.

Although Lunardi conceded the Gophers played four tough nonconference foes, the other nine nonconference games were against teams with RPIs outside the top 150. And games against Alabama A&M (No. 321) and USC Upstate (No. 313) especially hurt.

Lunardi advises between 40 to 50 schools, he said, to help them create a schedule that avoids games against teams with RPIs so low they hurt a team's resume.

"Those games are anchors," Lunardi said. "If you're playing No. 321 Alabama A&M, you almost can't play enough top-fives to compensate for that. The very bottoms hurt you more than the very tops help you. Because at the very bottom, they're just so bad. You can get away with one of them. But what does it tell you that with Minnesota playing (four) good teams, they're still in the 200s in strength of schedule?

"If they had traded their games against teams in the 300s for 150s, we wouldn't be having this conversation and their record would almost certainly be the same. It's bad planning. In many cases, it's avoidable."

It's worth noting that Minnesota's games against Alabama A&M, Western Carolina (No. 173) and Massachusetts (No. 188) came as part of the same tournament that yielded its game against Alabama.

Because nine of the Gophers' 12 wins are against teams outside the top-150 in RPI, Lunardi predicted a 9-9 Big Ten record wouldn't be good enough to get Minnesota into the NCAA tournament.

That's in part because the Big Ten offers few chances for impressive wins.

"What would concern me more than their nonconference performance is the decreased number of opportunities still available for them to build their resume," Lunardi said. "That's the story, I think."

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