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Four games left for Gophers to firm up NCAA tourney case

Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Amir Coffey (5) scrambles for a ball against Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Peter Kiss (32) during the second half Sunday, Feb. 24, at Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, N.J. Noah K. Murray / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- After the Gophers squandered a late lead in a 68-64 loss at Rutgers on Sunday, Feb. 24, head coach Richard Pitino said he didn’t sense his players pressing down the stretch.

“But as you know, the countdown begins, the pressure will mount,” Pitino said Wednesday, Feb. 27.

The countdown has already begun: Only three regular-season games and one guaranteed Big Ten tournament tilt are available for Minnesota to improve its flagging NCAA tournament résumé.

The pressure has checked in: Minnesota has lost six of its past seven games, but given the unimpressive field, the Gophers remain in March Madness projections. Continue to struggle, however, and Pitino could miss out on the Big Dance for the fifth time in six seasons.

The lowest rung on the Gophers’ slide came Sunday when a stretch of turnovers and many missed free throws doomed the U against a Scarlet Knights team beneath it in the standings.

“We’ve had some good practices since Rutgers,” Pitino said. “Obviously a difficult loss. Played really well at times and then turned the ball over during crucial moments and missed obviously some important free throws, but we move on.”

The Gophers want to avoid a new low against last-place Northwestern at 8 p.m. Thursday at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill. The Wildcats (12-15, 3-13 Big Ten) have lost eight straight games.

During preseason and nonconference play, Pitino and his players expressed belief they could be a top-four team in the Big Ten this season. But at 17-11 overall and 7-10 in conference play, Minnesota is in eighth.

After the Wildcats, the finish gets tougher. The Gophers face No. 14 Purdue at Williams Arena on Tuesday and go to No. 17 Maryland on March 8.

If the Gophers lose their final three and others beneath them get hot, the U could end up in the bottom four in the Big Ten.