NCAA Basketball Minnesota Golden Gophers

5 Things Minnesota Gophers Must Do To Make The 2014 NCAA Tournament

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Minnesota Golden Gophers Make Push Towards 2014 NCAA Tournament

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Several prognosticators pegged the Minnesota Golden Gophers to finish in the middle to lower half of the Big Ten this season. In retrospect, their current seventh place position is rather accurate. However, the strong reputation of the conference gives the Gophers a reasonable chance to be selected for the 2014 NCAA tournament.

In other words, they control their own destiny.

In his first season as head coach of the Gophers, Richard Pitino helped orchestrate a 17-10 overall record while going 6-8 in the rugged Big Ten. Though just 31 years old, he arrived with the spirit and pedigree (his father Rick Pitino coaches at Louisville) to lead a relatively young team to the postseason.

Pitino, who held the same position at Florida International last season, is no stranger to March Madness. In his only season there, he nearly led the Panthers to an NCAA automatic bid, falling to Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt title game, 65-63. He also gained valuable experience as an assistant coach at several spots, most notably under his father, with two stints at Louisville in 2007-09 and 2011-12, sandwiched between time at Florida (2009-11).

Known for high-pressure defense, Pitino guided the Panthers to eighth in the nation in steals last year. Though his Golden Gophers didn't finish nearly as high in 2013-14, he brought the same emphasis on defense to Minnesota, as the Gophers led the conference in steals averaging 7.8 per game.

In the remaining portion of their schedule, wins and losses will definitely be at a premium. The Gophers have dropped five of their last seven games, with four of them coming against unranked opponents (Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois).

Despite that, if the field were selected today, the Gophers would likely receive an invite, boasting an RPI of 42 and the fifth strongest schedule in the country. More than likely, they need to at least split their remaining four regular season games and grab a victory in the conference tournament to solidify a berth in the field of 68.

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5. Utilize The Bench

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Stamina doesn't pose much of a question for the Gophers, who have nine players on the team who average 10 or more minutes and 10 players that have seen action in at least 19 games. That kind of playing experience is paramount to a team that has only three seniors. If they make it to the Big Dance, it will be interesting to see how Pitino uses his extra players.

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4. Continue To Play Aggressive Defense

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Pitino has continued to implore the fullcourt press he brought from the Sun Belt to the Big Ten, resulting in the Gophers leading the conference in steals. Another huge factor for them on the defensive end is the play of junior center Elliott Eliason, who finished second in the Big 10 in blocks (2.2) and third in rebounding (7.4). Eliason's presence is needed because of the issue of depth in the frontcourt, as the Gophers were ranked just 143rd in the country in total rebounding.

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3. Make Free Throws

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The top four scorers for the Gophers are also their four best free-throw shooters. The beauty of that is they're all solid from the line, ranging between 77 and 83 percent. Games this time of year tend to be closer and a bit more contested, as many teams are jockeying for positioning. The Gophers aren't exactly the best shooting team from the floor, so earning a few extra points from the charity stripe might offset their lack of natural offense.

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2. Hollins Squared

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To the surprise of many, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are not related. However, after a summer workout in Memphis (both players are from Tennessee) two years ago, it would be easy to think they are indeed family.

Pitino doesn't necessarily have his guards playing specific positions. Andre leads the team in scoring (14.9 points per game) and excels with shooting off the dribble and driving to the basket. Anthony is very effective in transition and has a knack for jumping in the passing lanes (averaged a team-leading 1.9 steals per contest), and is the team's second best rebounder (5.9 RPG).

The secret weapon might be 5-foot-9 dynamo Deandre Mathieu, who is second on the team in scoring (11.6 PPG) and tops in assists (4.3 APG). He has active hands and can be a pest to opposing offensive players.

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1. Finish Strong

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If the Gophers finish 3-2 in their remaining regular season schedule, that would put them at 20-12 in the second-toughest league in the country. It will be no easy task to get there, as they face three consecutive ranked opponents, beginning at No. 24 Ohio State (Feb. 22), vs. No. 15 Iowa (Feb. 25), at No. 20 Michigan (March 1), and the season finale against a pesky Penn State team, who nearly defeated the Gophers in Happy Valley earlier this season (Minnesota won 68-65).

This is the perfect time for the Gophers to impress the NCAA selection committee, who faced a similar stretch last month, losing on the road to then No. 5 Michigan State and then No. 14 Iowa, while defeating then No. 11 Ohio State and then No. 9 Wisconsin at home. Stay tuned.