Friday, February 19, 2010

Gopher Broke: Can they do it for Bria Carter?

As Jeff Eisenberg noted, Minnesota recently paid tribute to teammate Paul Carter's cancer stricken sister by shaving their heads as a team before their 68-52 home upset against Wisconsin last night.

Eisenberg makes another key point: At 15-10 (with much of that record being buoyed by an easy non-con schedule) and being underwater at 6-7 in the Big 10, Minnesota's chances at the NCAA Tournament are dim. Stricken by arrests, academic issues and star recruit Royce White getting in trouble before bailing on the team for good... the Gophers under veteran coach Tubby Smith have had enough issues this year to make Tiger Woods' problems look mild in comparison.

Home losses to unhearalded Portland and a lowly Michigan team as well as a road loss to lowly Indiana and an 18 point pwnage by Ohio State is part of Minnesota's recycle-bin worthy 2009-2010 resume. Jeff Sagarin's ratings have the Gophers at 59th overall, with the bubble usually being around the low 40's... and that #59 ranking comes after the emphatic win over 13th rated Wisconsin.

All hope is not lost for a tournament bid, however. Minnesota can do more to pay tribute to Bria Carter than just shave their heads and steal a late season game from the Badgers. The good news is that despite their losses and middling rank in the Big 10, the win over Wisconsin wasn't so much of an inspired fluke: they can actually hang with the top teams in the conference. Sagarin's Predictor rating, different from their official rating in that it factors in margin of victory and is more accurate at gauging a team's chances vs other teams, rates them at 85.24, good for 25th overall in the nation. Compare that to top Big 10 teams Purdue (89.73) and the team they just beat at home, Wisconsin (89.14).

And speaking of Purdue, the Boilermakers are coming to Minnesota next Wednesday (2-24-10). Factoring in the home court bonus, Minnesota is literally a 50-50 shot against the current Big 10 leader. The rest of their schedule has nothing but winnable games, plus there's the Big 10 Tournament and its automatic NCAA Tournament bid for the winner. But it's possible for the Gophers to pad their strength of schedule enough to sneak into the tournament at-large. Their five remaining games: Indiana, Purdue, at Illinois, at Michigan and Iowa. The Selection Committee does show a bias towards late season charges by power conference teams, and Minnesota could net themselves a tourney spot given the following:

1. They need to beat Indiana, Michigan and Iowa.

These three teams, once-proud Big 10 powers, are now conference dogs, and Minnesota cannot afford a loss to any of them if they want to sneak in at-large. The sloppiness has to end now: Minnesota has to win these games. The home game with Indiana should be an easy win (92.3% chance of victory). Going to Ann Arbor will be much tougher since Michigan can to some extent play with the big boys (80.08 Predictor rating) but the Gophers are still a slight favorite (57.0%). The closer with Iowa is, like the Indiana game, an easy game (92.5%). The Michigan game will be a tough out, but they've got to win it, and of course there's no excuse for losing to Indiana and Iowa at this point.

Chances of beating all three: 48.7%
Chances of at least beating Indiana and Iowa: 85.4%

2. A win in Illinois with the three wins above would be nice, but if they lose to Michigan they must beat Illinois.

At #58 Sagarin, Illinois is roughly Minnesota's Big 10 equal, both in terms of rank and disappointment. Illinois is only a slight favorite at home (52.1%) so this is certainly a winnable game for Minnesota. It's not imperative that they beat Illinois, but at worst, between this and the Michigan game, they absolutely need to win at least one and at worst take a close, non-sloppy loss in the other. Winning both really helps, though doesn't necessarily make, their chances. Given a choice, Minnesota would much rather take a loss to Illinois and beat Michigan than the other way around.

Chances of beating all four: 23.3%
Chances of beating Indiana, Illinois and Iowa: 40.2%

3. Play Purdue close, at the least.

As mentioned, Minnesota has a real chance of beating Purdue at home (50.0%). But for selection's sake it is in their best interests to, at worst, keep this sort of close and, if they have to lose, to make sure it's in single digits. A close loss with 3-4 wins and Item #4 to come can be enough to indicate that Minnesota's worthy of an at-large spot. If they lose and the final margin's in double digits, however, that plus the Ohio State loss can well seal their at-large fate, even if they run the table in the other four games. This can't be a laid egg: Minnesota has to repeat their effort vs Wisconsin. Another upset win would be huge, and probably enough with 3-4 wins down the stretch to get them in on its own. But a close loss and a strong resume around it could be enough as well.

Chances of Minnesota running the table in their last 5 games: 7.6 to 1 (11.7%)
Chances of beating Indiana/Iowa/Illinois/Purdue: 20.1%
Indiana/Iowa/Michigan/Purdue: 20.4%

4. Get to the Big 10 Conference Tournament Semis.

This is going to be the biggest hurdle as, since Minnesota is likely going to be a #6 seed, the Gophers will need to pull at least one upset. Beating lowly Penn State in the opening round (80.9%) should be easy. It's beating Purdue again (35.8% on the neutral court), or avenging their ugly loss to Ohio State (39.4%), that's going to be tough. But they have to do it, or they're probably not getting in unless there are no upsets and a bunch of other bubble teams stumble themselves down the stretch.

Obviously, winning the tournament nets a guaranteed invite, but their chances of doing so are fairly slim. Assuming no upsets, their chances of doing that are somewhere around 18 to 1. Anything beyond making the semis (like, say, winning that semifinal game and hanging tough in the Big 10 Final) is in itself a bonus to their chances, but fairly remote.

Chances of making the semis: 30.4%
Chances of making the finals: 11.4% (8 to 1)
Chances of likely 7 seed Michigan helping Minnesota with a quarterfinal upset of Purdue or Ohio State: 20.3%


Minnesota's kind homage to Paul Carter's sister led to an inspired upset of highly rated Wisconsin, but Minnesota's moment in the sun doesn't need to end there. They've got a chance to undo much of the season's trashy mistakes and make more of this season than an NIT appearance without having to win the Big 10 Tournament. They can get into the tournament with at least 3-4 more regular season wins and a couple of Big 10 Tournament wins.

You can do it, Gophers. Get six more wins and get yourself into the Big Dance. If nothing else, do it for Bria Carter.

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