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Updated: February 21st, 2014 5:48pm
Can Richard Pitino's Gophers still salvage an NCAA tourney spot?

Can Richard Pitino's Gophers still salvage an NCAA tourney spot?

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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The Minnesota Gophers hit arguably the lowest point in their season Wednesday when lowly Illinois, one of the Big Ten's two last place teams, left them shell-shocked at home with a 13-point defeat.

With Richard Pitino's squad (17-10, 6-8) already floating at or near the NCAA tournament bubble, it was the type of loss that certainly won't look good on their final resume.

Four games remain on the Gophers' schedule, their next three of which come against No. 24 Ohio State, No. 15 Iowa and No. 20 Michigan. They need two more wins to match their Big Ten record from a year ago (8-10) and three to reach the .500 mark.

Was the Illinois loss the breaking point for the Gophers' tourney bubble? As it currently stands, the Gophers' hopes of a spot in the Big Dance appear to still be alive, albeit barely.

ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi thinks so. In his latest Bracketology projection, Lunardi put the Gophers into an 11-seed in the East region against No. 6-seed Oklahoma. However, Lunardi noted that Minnesota is trending downward.

Lunardi isn't the only tourney prognosticator still penciling in the Gophers. CBS Sports' Jerry Palm has Minnesota right on the edge of a bid, putting them into the 12-seed play-in game against Providence in his Friday bracket update.

USA Today has also kept the Gophers in, slotted at No. 11 in the West region against UConn.

The Gophers can still salvage its second straight NCAA tournament bid this season, but the margin for error has narrowed drastically. Outside a Big Ten tournament championship run, a solid regular season finish is Minnesota's only option if it wants to hear its name called come Selection Sunday.

Pitino's Gophers find themselves in a similar situation as Tubby Smith's crew last season. Minnesota held an identical 6-8 Big Ten record with four games to go. They won the first two games in that final stretch, including an upset over then-No.1 ranked Indiana, before closing out with a pair of losses.

Despite an 8-10 mark in the Big Ten, the Gophers were able to sneak into the tourney as an 11-seed.

Minnesota is undoubtedly the underdog now, but a road win at Ohio State on Saturday could go a long way towards providing the boost needed to make a late run.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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