The Minnesota Golden Gophers have a long road to the NCAA Tournament considering they'll likely have to win the 2012 Big Ten basketball tournament first, but nothing is impossible. Unlikely, maybe, but not impossible as the Gophers meet the Northwestern Wildcats in the first round on Thursday afternoon.
The Gophers might be without their only senior, center Ralph Sampson III, when the tip-off happens at about 4:30 p.m. Sampson's injury shouldn't make anyone shy away from watching it when ESPN2 begins its Big Ten tournament coverage (full schedule here).
Minnesota ended its season losing six of their final seven games (they beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers at home in the regular season finale), but split the season series with Northwestern. If the Gophers are able to play like they did against the Wildcats in their first meeting -- a 23-point victory in which all five starters scored in double figures -- things could be happening and the Gophers might be able to advance.
If the Gophers instead play the Wildcats like they did during 64-53 loss on Feb. 18, however, it might be time to cherish Minnesota's neighbors to the west and jump on the South Dakota State bandwagon. Aside from Julian Welch and his 21 points, Minnesota's starters combined for just 17 points and 14 turnovers.
Northwestern is of course led by John Shurna, the 6-foot-9 forward that seems to have the Gophers' number every time the two teams play. Shurna averaged 19.8 points and 5.3 rebounds for the Wildcats this season.
Whichever team wins Thursday afternoon's contest will have to turn around and face the Michigan Wolverines in a game scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Friday night.