As the calendar turns to March, anticipation grows for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament later this month.
Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away, and the Gophers still have work to do if they hope to secure a spot.
But head coach Tubby Smith said it’s not hard for his team to concentrate on the next game.
“I think our guys are focused on playing well,” he said. “I’m sure in the back of their heads they’re hoping, like everyone else is, that we can get a chance to play [in the tournament], but you’ve got to make it happen by winning.”
The Gophers (17-11, 8-8 Big Ten) probably can’t secure an at-large tournament bid with anything they do in their final two regular-season games Tuesday night at Michigan and Sunday at home against Iowa.
They could, however, fall into a scenario of needing to win the Big Ten tournament March 11-14 to make the Big Dance.
“We still know that if we win out and we do good in the [Big Ten] tournament, we’ll be able to get to the [NCAA] tournament,” freshman forward Rodney Williams said Saturday after the Gophers won at Illinois for the first time officially in 32 years.
The team’s struggles against Michigan hardly date back that far, but that doesn’t reduce the pressure for when the Gophers visit the Wolverines (13-15, 6-10) at Crisler Arena on Tuesday night.
Minnesota has lost three straight to Michigan, including a 71-63 defeat at Williams Arena Feb. 11.
Wolverines forward DeShawn Sims made 10 of 12 second-half field goals and scored 27 points in that game, and he will be a major focus for the Gophers defense Tuesday night.
“Hopefully we can mix up our defenses to try to keep them off balance, but it usually comes down to a one-on-one; do you have the personnel to limit his touches and contest his shots?” Smith said.
Smith said Sims even presents challenges for the Gophers’ two best defenders. He has the quickness to beat Gophers sophomore center Ralph Sampson III and the bulk to overpower senior forward Damian Johnson, Smith said.
“He’s so mobile … and with his size and athleticism … it makes it pretty difficult for a matchup for us,” Smith said.
The Gophers have had better defensive showings since switching to a zone defense the last four games. They’ve held three opponents below 33 percent field-goal shooting.
Michigan coach John Beilein said Minnesota’s new zone has been effective. He also commended the recent play of Gophers sophomore point guard Devoe Joseph, who has averaged 12 points, four assists and four rebounds per game since a four-point, four-turnover outing against the Wolverines.
“He is really comfortable; that’s made a big difference, I think,” Beilein said.
Joseph’s miss on a last-second shot against No. 3 Purdue last Wednesday is all that keeps the Gophers from carrying a four-game winning streak into Tuesday. But the recent stretch has still brought them back on to the NCAA tournament bubble.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who compiles a projected NCAA tournament bracket throughout the season, put Minnesota as one of the “First Four Out” of the tournament field in a bracket published Monday.
With losses to Northwestern (currently seventh in the Big Ten), Michigan (eighth) and Indiana (tied for 10th), the Gophers can’t afford another loss to the Wolverines or to Iowa.
“I don’t know that we’ve done our work [to get into the tournament],” Smith said. “You certainly always hold out hope that you can get yourself in a position to do that, and that’s about it.”