Rodney Williams Jr. gets chance in tournament

AUSTIN, Texas — When Minnesota coach Tubby Smith recruited Rodney Williams Jr. out of Minneapolis, Minn., he couldn’t truly sell the highly touted forward on the state of Minnesota basketball at that moment.

Sure, the Golden Gophers had just made the NCAA Tournament, their first berth in several years. But they hadn’t won a game in the Big Dance since 1997, and hadn’t won a non-vacated NCAA Tourney game since 1990. But Williams, who was rated the No. 6 small forward in the country by Scout.com and a four-star prospect, listened intently to what Smith had to say.

“He told me that the program was turned around, that he was going to keep recruiting great players,” said Williams, now a senior for the Gophers. “And we were going to find a team along the road here that was going to make a run in the tournament and do big things.

“I think this is the team,” Williams said.

Few would argue after watching No. 11 seed Minnesota systematically dismantle No. 6 seed UCLA 83-63, a team supposedly packed with lottery picks and too much athleticism for the tortoise-paced Gophers. Andre Hollins scored 23 of his 28 points in the second half and Joe Coleman scored all 14 of his in the second as Minnesota turned a 10-point lead — one the Bruins trimmed to five at the 15:04 mark — into a 20-point victory dance.

“We expected to win the game,” Williams said. “But we didn’t expect it to be a 20-point blowout like that. We expected to come out here and kind of grind one out. But we were clicking, on defense and offense.”

In fact, on a day that saw No. 2 seed Georgetown fall to No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast, had Minnesota (21-12) ground out a close game, it wouldn’t have registered a blip on the radar. Many felt the Gophers, hardened by a vicious Big 10 schedule, were the favorites, and KenPom.com actually had Minnesota rated higher. The website, which ranks teams based on their efficiency levels and tweaked for competition, had Minnesota rated as the No. 22 team in the country heading in. That was exactly 22 spots ahead of No. 44-ranked UCLA (25-10). But even KenPom predicted a three-point Minnesota win, not the fast-moving, three-point drilling Gopher product that hit the court Friday night like a cyclone.

After all, Minnesota came in playing the 288th fastest Adjusted Tempo in the country. And Minnesota made just 32.6 percent of its three-point attempts this season, the 232nd-best rate in the nation. But that same Minnesota team  dominated in transition, scoring 15 fast-break points to the six put up by UCLA, while knocking in 9-of-16 three-pointers.

“It’s huge,” Hollins said. “Growing up as a little kid you just dream of these moments, and I’m just so thankful to have a great team like we have and a great coach and a great coaching staff to be able to have this opportunity.”

It was an opportunity earned, and a shock to their West Coast foes. When the Bruins cut the lead down to five in the second half, Hollins hit two three-pointers in a row to stretch things back out to double digits.

“When you pull close to five, and they extend back to 11, that just sucks,” said UCLA forward Travis Wear.

The Bruins never got closer than eight the rest of the way, and the lead ballooned to 23 points with just more than four minutes left.

“I thought we were prepared,” said Bruin star freshman Shabazz Muhammad. “They came out and jumped on us early and they played really well. Like I said, they deserved to win.”

Bruin coach Ben Howland was asked after the game about whether he coached his last game at UCLA, issuing a no comment. When questions about his job continued, Howland cited the improvement his team made over the course of the year.

“I’m just really proud of the season that these kids provided the UCLA fans,” Howland said.

In a vacuum, it’s hard to argue with Howland’s premise. The Bruins roared to 25 wins and won the Pac-12 regular-season title. It was the most victories UCLA had since winning 26 in 2008-2009, and the Bruins’ first league title since Howland won three straight from 2006-2008.

Be that as it may, a first-round NCAA Tournament exit wasn’t exactly what Bruin fans had in mind after Howland inked one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, including three five-star talents in Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker, as well as underrated four-star Jordan Adams, a player Howland called “arguably our most effective all-around player at both ends of the floor.” But Adams, the team’s second-leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, sustained a season-ending broken foot in a brilliant 24-point effort against Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Bruins lost their next game, a 78-69 defeat at the hands of Oregon.

“No question that affected us,” Howland said. “I mean, it affected us in the seeding — we should have been in Salt Lake instead of here if he stays healthy.”

Still, UCLA figured to have enough star power to handle Minnesota, which limped in following three consecutive defeats, including a 16-point blasting at Purdue. And while Minnesota started the season hot, winning 15 of its first 16 games, the Gophers struggled to finish, going 5-11 in their final 16.

But Tubby Smith’s bunch was always a capable team — Minnesota beat Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin, among others, this season. And while UCLA’s pups were struggling through their first tournament appearance — Muhammad and Anderson combined to score 26 points on 8-for-29 shooting — the Golden Gophers almost seemed like they had been there before.

“It was off to a real tough start for us,” Muhammad said. “It is hard to play in the NCAA Tournament. I think we had a lot of jitters coming out, but all-in-all, I think they deserved to win. They played better basketball than us.”

Now it’s UCLA that faces scrutiny for its lack of recent tournament success. And though Howland once ran off three consecutive Final Four appearances, he presently presides over a program that has three NCAA Tournament appearances and just two tourney wins in the past five years.

Minnesota gets to keep its dancing shoes on for at least one more game, though the Gophers don’t sound like they plan on taking them off anytime soon. After all, the last Golden Gopher tournament win on record led Minnesota to the Elite Eight in 1990.

“We just came out here with a passion and a desire to go out here and win,” Williams said. “A lot of people were doubting us, and we know how good we are, and that we didn’t end the season like we wanted to. Everybody in this locker room knew what we were capable of.”