Joe Lunardi is as plugged in to the pulse of the NCAA men's basketball tournament selection committee as anyone. So, when the longtime ESPN bracket analyst says the Gophers might not need a road win to receive an at-large bid this year, that carries some weight.
"The zero in that column keeps jumping out at me," said Lunardi about Minnesota's 0-8 road record. "But I just think that a lot of traditional ways of looking at this might be out the window."
The 2020-21 college hoops season has been like no other because of the pandemic, blurring the lines typically drawn between road, neutral-site and home games. They all seem similar with no fans.
Could this be the year where quality wins alone tip the scale in a team's favor, regardless of where they're played? Where a résumé stacked with just big-time home wins is good enough? Lunardi thinks so. And the Gophers fit that example probably better than anyone, heading into Saturday's home game against No. 5 Illinois.
Sure, the Gophers (13-9, 6-9 Big Ten) are the only Big Ten team without a road win and trending down in bracket projections after seven losses in 10 games. But there's no doubt they've beaten the best of the best. They could still add more, too.
Minnesota is going for a single-season program record sixth win vs. a ranked opponent Saturday against the Illini (15-5, 11-3). Coach Richard Pitino is 13-1 at the Barn this season, including 5-0 vs. ranked opponents.
"It's not like their good wins are borderline," said Lunardi about U victories over Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, and Purdue at home. "They have four really good wins. I think if they just avoid the obvious bad loss that would give them a reason to be kept out — they'll make it."
Résumé good enough?
No team in recent NCAA tournament history received an at-large bid with zero road wins. Not since 1994 has there been a team with fewer than three road wins make the field. Rutgers likely would've gotten in last year at 2-8 away from home, but March Madness was canceled because of COVID-19.
The Gophers made the NCAA tournament in 2019 with a 2-9 record in true road games, but they were 7-2 at neutral sites, including two wins in the Big Ten tournament.
Conference tourney opportunities aside this year, Pitino likes his team's NCAA tourney chances with five regular-season games left. Two road games remain, against Nebraska on Feb. 27 and against Penn State on March 3. The Gophers also host Northwestern on Feb. 25 and Rutgers in the March 6 home finale.
Minnesota's NET ranking through Thursday's games was 57th, which is 11th in the Big Ten and well behind fellow bubble teams Maryland (35), Penn State (40) and Indiana (42). That could change significantly for the Gophers if they improve their 4-8 record in Quad 1 games, the most important for boosting the NCAA tourney résumé.
"We have a Quad 1 win opportunity in front of us with Illinois," Pitino said. "I believe Penn State would be a potential Quad 1. Rutgers would be a potential Quad 1. They decide after the season. I know it's cool to talk about. We don't talk about it that much. But the beauty of the Big Ten is every game is worth a lot."
Stopping the Illini's six-game win streak with an upset Saturday would definitely keep the Gophers on the right side of the NCAA tourney bubble for now.
But they also play Northwestern and Nebraska again, two of the Big Ten's bottom feeders. Losing only one of those games could be catastrophic for the U's chances.
"I think to fall below the wrong side would take a bottom-of-the-league loss," Lunardi said. "In fairness, other teams could catch them and upsets happening elsewhere could steal bids. That shrinks the bubble a bit. But if I were a betting man, I'd say they'll make it."
Lunardi has the Gophers projected as a No. 12 seed and among his "Last Four" teams in the 68-team field. But CBSSports' Jerry Palm updated his bracket to include Gophers in "First Four Out" with North Carolina, Stanford and Seton Hall.
Palm wouldn't be surprised if more teams make it this year with overall records "below the usual standards." The minimum requirement is now 13 games to be eligible for the NCAA tournament, which is being played exclusively in Indiana this year during the pandemic.
Unlike Lunardi, though, Palm thinks the Gophers or any team winless on the road will not make the field because road wins this year "are easier to come by."
No matter how they can continue to build their NCAA résumé, Pitino and Co. just want to avoid the scenario where their Selection Sunday is an awfully nerve-racking experience in March.
"I feel like we should make it," sophomore forward Isaiah Ihnen said. "We're going to go on a run and for sure bounce back. I feel like we have good chances."