Every now and then in the past few weeks, folks have asked me whether I still think Minnesota can make the NCAA tournament. And the answer is always, in my best Bane voice: Of course! Have you seen Minnesota's résumé? It has the top strength of schedule in the country, a top-15 nonconference schedule, a top-20 RPI, a higher proportion of top 100 and 150 games than most teams (the Golden Gophers simply didn't play many cupcakes) and no truly bad losses, depending how you feel about a 48-point performance at Northwestern. When you dig in and look at Minnesota and compare it with, say, Temple or Virginia or Baylor or Arizona State -- teams actually on the bubble -- you see how silly it is to wonder whether the Gophers are going to miss out on the NCAA tournament, at least at this point.
It is far more reasonable to ask the following: Is Minnesota done? After last week's blowout losses at Iowa and Ohio State, even if (when) the Gophers get to the tournament, aren't they destined to lose on the first weekend, to ignominiously limp out of this once-promising season? Since the start of the year, Minnesota hasn't actually improved in any way; indeed, since conference play began, it has kept turning the ball over at an alarming rate, kept playing mostly soft defense and kept rebounding its own misses very well -- though not well enough to mask its other deficiencies. It's all pretty rote at this point.
Meanwhile, Tubby Smith's job is undeniably on the line. Smith's Minnesota teams have developed a reputation for collapsing in February, which is accurate: After the loss at Ohio State, the Gophers are 15-28 in February in six seasons under Smith. In some of those seasons, that's been because of injuries or dismissals; this season, the Gophers have no such excuse.
Which is what makes tonight so very interesting. If Minnesota can't get up for the No. 1 team in the country, a team that swamped the Gophers in Bloomington before a second-half comeback gave them a real chance at the upset -- back when Minnesota was a top-10 team, before this latest tailslide -- then Minnesota can't get up for anyone and we might as well consider the Gophers cooked. The burden of proof rests with them.
While the Gophers have been trending one way, Tennessee has quietly been heading the other. This happened last year, too. After an otherwise forgettable first two months, the Vols won eight of their last nine and finished 10-6 in SEC play.
It's too early to argue that we're seeing a similar push this season -- the Vols have merely won their past five, over mostly unimpressive opponents -- but after a season spent grinding it out on the offensive end, Tennessee is suddenly scoring with abandon: 88 points in 65 possessions against Kentucky, 82 in 63 on LSU, a 93-point four-OT game at Texas A&M.
None of which is Florida, of course. The Gators are still among the nation's best five teams -- you could make the argument they're the nation's second-best team, based on efficiency performance to date -- and it's more than a little bit tough to imagine UT going off against UF's stingy perimeter defense. But when Florida has been beatable this season -- Arizona, Kansas State, Arkansas, Missouri -- it has been beatable on the road, and usually thanks to late spurts. It is not unfathomable to think the Vols could swing this upset; if Arkansas can do it, why can't Tennessee? And if it happens, that late-season tournament push will be official.
Elsewhere: Don't rub your eyes: No. 19 Memphis is indeed taking its show on the road to Xavier on Tuesday night for a little rare, late-February nonconference action. Relative to its usual A-10 dominance, Xavier is in a down year. But that doesn't make the Cintas Center any easier of a road environment, and it doesn't make this chance to see the Tigers perform outside the comfy, mostly incapable confines of Conference USA any less interesting. Nebraska travels to No. 17 Wisconsin. Auburn plays at Alabama, which should induce some fun stuff from Charles Barkley on Thursday night. And did you ever think Towson, which won just one game last season, would lead George Mason by one game in the CAA standings? I did not.