When January ended, Minnesota found itself favorably positioned to make the NCAA Tournament, holding a 6-4 record in the Big Ten and a 16-5 record overall. However, it was clear that the team's toughest tests would come in February.
During the past month, the Gophers have lost six of their seven games, each defeat coming on the road or at the hands of a ranked opponent. Although the stretch has been frustrating for fans, it was not completely surprising.
"I'd say that they're basically right about where I expected them to be," said Eli Powell, vice president of The Barnyard, the men's basketball team's official student section. "We knew that February was going to be brutal. After the Illinois game on Jan. 30, [the Gophers] were only favored to win one game the rest of the season. That was the game at Rutgers, which [they] just lost, but Rutgers had since gotten better so [the Gophers] weren't even favored to win that one."
That 68-64 defeat against Rutgers on Feb. 24 looms large for Minnesota. Many assumed if the Gophers defeated middling opponents in Rutgers and Northwestern, they would lock up an NCAA Tournament bid. Now, with just three regular season games remaining, it's likely the team will need to upset either Purdue or Maryland.
Following the defeat to Rutgers, head coach Richard Pitino told the media the team wasn't going to get ahead of itself, looking prematurely to games down the line.
"Prepare for [Northwestern], that's all you can do," Pitino said following the defeat at Rutgers. "Don't look ahead. There are still so many good opportunities in front of us. You can't start thinking about 'what-ifs', you just have to see if you can steal a road win."
Despite the challenging February, Minnesota still has hope of making the NCAA Tournament. While their projected seed has fallen over the past four weeks, other teams in similar situations have also failed to separate themselves from the pack.
A unique variable may make projecting the NCAA Tournament field more difficult this year, however. This season, the NCAA introduced a new ranking system called the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET. Currently, the Gophers sit at 60 in the NET Rankings, relatively low compared to other teams expected to receive an at-large bid. Minnesota sits one spot behind fellow Big Ten team Penn State, a team that sits second-to-last in the conference standings.
While it's unclear how much the NET will factor into the committee's decision making, Minnesota could stand to benefit from an upset victory before the Big Ten Tournament. Powell pointed to the March 5 home game against Purdue as an opportunity accomplish just that, citing Williams Arena as a distinct advantage.
"Anything can happen at 'The Barn,'" Powell said. "The Purdue game is definitely one to keep an eye out for. We've seen [Williams Arena] rocking this year like it hasn't in years. 'The Barn' is an equalizer."
In the latest AP rankings, Purdue is currently No. 14. The Boilermakers defeated Minnesota 73-63 on Feb. 3 to begin the Gophers' current stretch of six losses in seven games.
While the team is doing its best to focus on one game at a time, players are aware of the bigger picture. Redshirt senior Brock Stull, who spent his first four seasons at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, compared the Gophers' final stretch to previous conference tournaments he has played in.
"All these games are a little tougher," Stull said. "It's kind of like that tournament. You feel that pressure, you need to win."
Minnesota will have a chance to pick up a crucial victory Thursday night in Evanston, Illinois. The Gophers will try to improve upon their 1-8 record in road games against a Northwestern team that's last place in the Big Ten.