There is a hard way for the Gophers women’s basketball team to earn a berth into the NCAA tournament and then an even harder way.
First, the hard way: If they win the Big Ten tournament, they’ll earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance regardless of how they finish the regular season.
The harder way requires Minnesota to upset one — probably two — of the ranked opponents it will play on the road this week, making a run in the Big Ten tournament and then receiving an at-large bid from the tournament’s selection committee.
Winning the Big Ten tournament, which will take place March 1-4, seems improbable. As the standings are now, if the Big Ten tournament started today, the Gophers would receive the eighth seed and play Northwestern.
The two teams played last season in the first round of the tournament where eighth-seeded Northwestern defeated ninth-seeded Minnesota 53-44.
If the Gophers beat Northwestern, which they did earlier this year in Evanston, Ill., they would play the top-seeded team in the conference. At this point, that is Penn State.
After the initial two games, the Gophers would have to win two more games to be crowned Big Ten tournament champions.
The Big Ten Tournament will be played at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind.
Minnesota has won just two of its five neutral-site games this season.
The Gophers have also never won the Big Ten tournament, and are 5-17 all-time in Big Ten tournament games.
Indiana won the 2001-02 Big Ten tournament after it finished 8-8 in conference and 17-14 overall. It is the closest example in recent years to this year’s Minnesota team.
The Gophers are currently 14-14 overall with a 6-8 Big Ten record.
They are not an elite Big Ten team, but they have shown that they can play with the elite.
They upset then-No. 9 Ohio State 76-65 on Jan. 29, almost beat then-No. 19 Penn State in a home game that got away and then beat No. 16 Nebraska at Williams Arena.
“We obviously have the talent that we need on this team to beat a Penn State that’s top-20, an Ohio State that’s top-10 and so forth, but I just think consistency [is the problem],” head coach Pam Borton said Feb. 7.
At this point, the Gophers are not in the tournament and they are not a bubble team, according to ESPN’s Charlie Creme’s latest Bracketology prediction released Feb. 13.
If they are going to earn an at-large bid, they have their work cut out for them.
Although they have looked great at times, they have fallen flat in several games — especially on the road.
They are 1-5 in Big Ten road games, with their one win coming against Northwestern on Jan. 5.
“The effort, working hard, playing hard and the energy level has to be there every night,” Borton said Feb. 7. “I think we have it here at home — the kids play with a lot of energy, a lot of passion, a lot of excitement and we have to take that on the road.”
Minnesota’s two remaining games are against No. 8 Ohio State and No. 11 Penn State, and both are on the road.
The Buckeyes have yet to lose a game this season at Schottenstein Center, their home court.
The Nittany Lions have only two Big Ten losses at home this season.
If the Gophers upset both Ohio State and Penn State, their rÃ©sumÃ© — which would feature four wins against top-20 Big Ten teams — would likely be enough to nab an at-large bid.