Everything Changes for Ben Johnson’s Gophers with Win Over Michigan State Tonight

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Minnesota
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team is enjoying their best season of head coach Ben Johnson’s 2.5 year tenure as head coach. The Golden Gophers are exactly halfway through their 2023-24 Big Ten schedule. Their 5-5 conference record (14-7 overall) has them sitting 6th place in the Big Ten standings.

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With 10 games still remaining, the Gophers have already collected more conference wins (5) and total wins (14) in 2023-24 than either of Johnson’s first two seasons as head coach.

No NCAA Tournament love (yet) for Minnesota Gophers

Yet… you still won’t find much, if any, Minnesota Gophers discourse surrounding the 68-team 2024 NCAA Tournament field. As of Tuesday, they stand 91st in the NET rankings and good luck finding them listed anywhere as a possible bubble team.

1(2) Purdue10-20.83321-20.913#2
2(10) Illinois8-31.50.72717-50.773#14
3(11) Wisconsin8-31.50.72716-60.727#13
4Northwestern 6-53.50.54515-70.682#59
5Michigan State6-53.50.54514-80.636#22
7Nebraska 6-640.516-70.696#52
8Indiana 5-64.50.45513-90.591#103
9Maryland 5-64.50.45513-90.591#78
10Penn State5-64.50.45511-110.5#100
11Iowa 5-64.50.45513-90.591#60
13Ohio State3-86.50.27313-90.591#67

For example, ESPN released a new version of their ‘Bubble Watch’ feature on their subscription site (ESPN+) Tuesday morning. In it, college basketball insider John Gasaway lists teams from each conference who are considered ‘locks‘ to get in to the tourney, along with teams that ‘should be in‘ and those with ‘work to do‘.

For the Big Ten, Gasaway lists Purdue and Wisconsin as NCAA Tournament ‘locks’; Illinois and Northwestern as ‘should be in’ teams. Schools with ‘work to do’ include Michigan State and Nebraska. One team you won’t find in the Big Ten section, however, is the Minnesota Gophers.

Even though they’re ahead of Nebraska in the standings and their results on the season include wins over both the Huskers and Northwestern, both of which are named in ESPN’s feature as bubble teams that are likely in, as of today.

So, what gives? Well, Ben Johnson’s 2023-24 squad ranks all they way down at No. 91 in the NET ratings, which is widely used to determine who dances in March and who stays home or heads to the NIT Tournament instead.

Related: Minnesota Gophers Keep March Madness Hopes Alive with Huge Win at the Barn vs Northwestern

Their low NET rating is due to a rather weak 2023-24 schedule. Ben Johnson packed it early with confidence boosting non-conference matchups and his team took advantage… but home wins vs cupcake opponents don’t move the NET needle.

Not only that, but the Gophers are playing in a down Big Ten conference this season. Sometimes, the Big Ten has five to seven teams scattered throughout the AP top-25 and 10-12 teams worthy of a March Madness birth. This week, they have three (Purdue #2, Illinois #10, Wisconsin #11) in the top-25 and they’re looking like a conference that’ll be lucky to get six teams into the dance.

Huge opportunity for Ben Johnson’s Gophers vs Michigan State

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Minnesota Gophers
Photo: Matt Krohn – USA TODAY SportsCredit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

But on Tuesday, the Gophers can change everything about conversations currently being had around the NCAA Tournament and which Big Ten teams belong in. Following two-straight wins over Penn State and Northwestern, Minnesota welcomes another bubble team, the Michigan State Spartans, to Williams Arena tonight.

What’s on the line? Everything that Ben Johnson and his team have been working toward all season. A win over Sparty on Tuesday would give the Gophers their first quad-1 win of the season, which would launch them up the NET rankings, and their 6th conference dub of the season, which would be good for 4th place in the Big Ten standings.

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Not only would a rosier NET picture help the way bracketologists see Minnesota this season, but they’d be impossible to ignore if they are sitting ahead of Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan State in the conference standings, and they hold wins over all three perceived tournament teams.

So, if Ben Johnson and the 2023-24 Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team wants more respect on its name, when national talking heads start March Madness conversations; if they want more run in the local papers and on local sports sites (like MSF) then they need to take care of business tonight at the Barn. They win tonight, and everybody will start paying attention.

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