Conference: Big Ten (At-Large/Auto Bid)
Record: 23-8 (11-7)
NCAA Tournament Seed: 5, South
How they got to the Big Dance
Last season, Minnesota went 8-23. This year, The Golden Gophers went 23-8 in the regular season. That incredible turnaround is thanks not only to Big Ten Coach of the Year Richard Pitino, but also to an influx of talent. Former four-star freshmen Amir Coffey and Eric Curry and the emergence of Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch have rejuvenated a Gophers squad that was horrible last season.
Minnesota started the season hot, winning its first seven games before losing to Florida State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Gophers finished off nonconference play with six-straight wins before losing its first conference game in overtime to Michigan State. A second consecutive overtime game to start conference play ended differently for the Gophers as they went to Purdue and claimed a nine-point road win. After two more wins, Minnesota went on a five-game losing streak, which featured back-to-back two-point losses to Penn State and Wisconsin.
In a microcosm of their entire season, the Gophers turned it around and won eight straight, including a double-overtime victory against Iowa, an overtime win against Michigan and three straight double-digit victories over Maryland, Penn State and Nebraska.
Why they’re a legitimate contender
Despite losing at Wisconsin in the final regular season game, Minnesota enters the Big Dance as one of the hottest teams in the country. The Gophers won eight of their final nine regular season games and took down Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament before meeting an even hotter Michigan team in the semis. Amir Coffey, Nate Mason and Reggie Lynch are playing about as well as any other trio in the country right now. Pitino has found ways to motivate his Gophers all year and there’s no reason to expect that won’t continue in tournament play.
Why they’re not a legitimate contender
Akeem Springs, who averages 9.6 points per game, hurt his lower leg and was on crutches at the end of Minnesota’s quarterfinal game, and is out for the season. Losing Springs hurts. He’s the team’s fifth-leading scorer, but his presence on the court outweighs his points per game. After transferring to Minnesota for his final college season, Springs was named a team captain. In his absence, Pitino will have to make lineup adjustments, likely having to play some players out of position to make room for Dupree McBrayer, who started the first 19 games of the season before Springs replaced him.
Springs’ absence from the rotation will make the Gophers’ already short rotation even shorter. Seven Gophers average 20 minutes or more per game, and now only six of them will be available for the remainder of the season. In tournament play, with fewer days of rest than normal between games, a shorter rotation could hurt Minnesota.
Player to watch: Forward Reggie Lynch
The Illinois State transfer has made his presence known in the Big Ten this season after sitting out last year due to NCAA rules. In his sophomore season at Illinois State, Lynch led the conference and ranked No. 14 nationally in blocks with 2.8 per game. This season, he improved on that number, totaling 106 blocks over 30 games for an average of over 3.5 per contest on his way to being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Only one Division I player rejected more shots this season. Lynch has the tools to be a defensive force down low and is a threat to score in the low post as well. His 8.1 points per game don’t jump off the page, but they often come at pivotal moments in the game.