MINNEAPOLIS — Rodney Williams looked like his dog just died. Austin Hollins looked bored.
By the looks of it, you would think the Gophers basketball team was snubbed from the NCAA tournament.
Despite what the players’ body language said when they addressed the media Sunday at Williams Arena, Minnesota is indeed in the tournament as a No. 11 seed. Perhaps the visible disappointment comes from the fact that the Gophers were once ranked No. 8 in the country before tumbling out of the rankings in the second half of the season and backing into the NCAA tournament.
After finishing 8-10 in the Big Ten and 20-11 overall, the Gophers still secured a spot in the big dance and will face No. 6 UCLA on Friday in Austin. While some may feel Minnesota may not have deserved a spot in the tournament given how they played in the second half, coach Tubby Smith knows it’s a chance for his team to prove it’s better than it played during the final two months of the season.
“We’re really excited about this opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament,” Smith said. “It’s always a goal of ours. Certainly it’s one that you relish and you’ve got to cherish when you get these opportunities. . . .
“We know that we haven’t played well, but we also know that it’s another opportunity for us to measure ourselves and test ourselves against a very good UCLA Bruins team.”
The Gophers, who lost to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, earned a spot in the NCAA tournament due in large part to their strength of schedule. Minnesota’s scheduled ranked as the third toughest in college basketball this season, boosting the team’s RPI (Ratings Percentage Index). The Gophers faced 10 teams ranked in the Top 25 this year, including four teams in the Top 5.
Smith knows that Minnesota’s schedule helped boost its resume, as the Gophers began the season 15-1 and lost just once in non-conference play.
“We’ve always played a competitive schedule wherever I’ve been. When I was at Kentucky, we played in my 10 years, five of the toughest schedules in the history of the school,” Smith said. “I just think you’ve got to measure your team early and see where you are. We’ve done that. Unfortunately this year, all the things we found out about ourselves, we didn’t seem to carry over as well as we would have liked into conference play.”
UCLA finished No. 21 in the AP Top 25 poll and 25-9 overall. The Bruins lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship. UCLA was led by freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who averaged 17.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game this year.
While they’re the lower seed in Friday’s game, the Gophers like the draw they received.
“Once we were called, we were excited. It’s a great matchup for us,” Williams said. “It’s another opportunity to go out here and play.”
This is the Gophers’ third appearance in the NCAA tournament during Smith’s six-year tenure. As a No. 10 seed in 2009, Minnesota fell to No. 7 Texas in the opening round. One year later, the Gophers lost as a No. 11 seed to sixth-seeded Xavier in 2010.
Only two players — Williams and fellow senior Trevor Mbakwe — have played in the NCAA tournament. Williams was a member of the Gophers squad that lost to Xavier, while Mbakwe played with Marquette in 2008.
The rest of Minnesota’s roster will be getting their first taste of the big dance. One year ago, the Gophers made a run in the NIT Tournament before losing to Stanford in the championship game.
“We really haven’t had a chance to talk about it, but we’ll get the guys together and we’ll talk about it,” Williams said when asked if he and Mbakwe have prepared the younger players for what to expect. “Hopefully we can give everybody some good words of wisdom and get this thing rolling right away.”
Minnesota is the lowest seed of all the Big Ten teams in the tournament. Indiana earned a No. 1 seed, while Ohio State is a No. 2 seed. Michigan State earned a No. 3 seed, Michigan opens as a No. 4, Wisconsin is a No. 5 seed and Illinois is a No. 7 seed.
Regardless of how the Gophers got in — or whether they deserved to — the important thing is that they’re in. The regular season may not have ended the way Minnesota had hoped, but the NCAA tournament is a chance for a second opportunity for a Gophers team that once had such high hopes.
“It’s exciting. You always dream of getting to this point. Now, we’re finally here,” Hollins said. “We’re happy to be here. We’re excited. But we know there’s more work to be done.”