Entering the final week of the regular season, though, everything has changed. The Gophers could very well be on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
With home games against Wisconsin and Michigan ahead, Minnesota likely needs victories in both, plus at least one win in the Big Ten tournament to get back in the selection committee's good graces.
A 52-41 loss at Illinois on Feb. 26 has dropped the Gophers to 8-8 in the league, and 20-8 on the season. The major sticking point is Minnesota's weak nonconference schedule, which is a reason why it began the final week of the season with an RPI around 40.
That balance the Gophers were praised for having early this season is quickly turning into a flaw. All of the rotations have left them without a go-to scorer who can be counted on for big baskets.
As a result, Minnesota went the final six minutes, 22 seconds of Thursday's loss to Illinois without a field goal. It's a recurring problem for a team that continues to break down at critical junctions late in games.
"I'm just at a loss in late-game situations why we can't execute," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "I don't know whether it's nerves or what. We run a play and the play breaks down and guys try to go 1-on-1, and that's a real problem for us because we don't have 1-on-1 players. Our offense is not geared that way. And that's why we can't execute in the end."
Not all hope is lost. The Gophers have already beaten Wisconsin earlier this season in Madison, and another victory against the Badgers might propel this team back into the tournament. But the Gophers likely won't go far until they figure out how to handle the ball and come up with clutch baskets — against the Illini, Minnesota registered nine assists while turning it over 19 times.
"That's about as pathetic as you get," Smith said.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.
IN FOCUS: The game against Wisconsin is critical to Minnesota's postseason hopes. The Gophers have already defeated the Badgers in overtime in Madison. This time, they need a victory to pump life back into their fading NCAA hopes.
Michigan 74, Minnesota 62
Minnesota 72, Northwestern 45
Illinois 52, Minnesota 41
vs. Wisconsin, Tuesday, March 4
vs. Michigan, Saturday, March 7
Big Ten tournament at Indianapolis, March 12-15