MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team could have been like so many other schools. They could have gained an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, only to see their season come to an abrupt end with an early-round exit.
Instead, the Gophers’ season is still alive. They’ll play in the Final Four of the NIT Tournament on Tuesday when they take on the No. 1 seed Washington Huskies at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“We’re happy to be moving forward and going to New York to compete for the NIT championship,” said Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith. “I think our kids, they’ve worked extremely hard and have been playing the right way over the last few weeks.”
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En route to New York City, the sixth-seeded Gophers had to win three consecutive road games. They opened the NIT Tournament with a 70-61 win at La Salle and then went to Miami and dismantled the Hurricanes by a 78-60 final. On Wednesday, they hung on to beat Middle Tennessee State in what Smith said was the best atmosphere his team had seen all postseason.
If Minnesota is going to win the NIT Championship, it’ll mean five straight victories away from Williams Arena.
“I think it’s just a maturation period, a growing up factor,” Smith said of the Gophers’ road success. “We’ve been a good road team over the years. I think it’s the way you teach and the way we coach. No matter where you’re playing, you prepare the same way.”
But Tuesday’s semifinal game will be under the bright lights of the Big Apple and in one of basketball’s most storied arenas. Junior forward Rodney Williams said none of the current Gophers — aside from injured senior Trevor Mbakwe — have played at Madison Square Garden.
Given all that, Minnesota can’t forget the reason they’re making the trip.
“I know a lot of them have never been to New York, so it’ll be a great experience, a good cultural learning experience,” Smith said. “But even through that, being able to maintain our concentration, our focus on just Washington, and that’s what you have to do. You have to understand why you’re there. It is a business trip. It’s not a field trip.”
This Gophers team has been hard to predict all season. After a 12-1 start in non-conference play, Minnesota quickly dropped its first four Big Ten games without Mbakwe. Starting with an overtime loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 9, the Gophers lost six in a row before snapping the skid with a win over Nebraska in the regular-season finale. At that point, it didn’t seem likely that Minnesota was poised for a deep postseason run, regardless of which tournament.
But something seemed to click in the Gophers’ first Big Ten Tournament game, when freshman Andre Hollins scored a career-high 25 points to help Minnesota beat Northwestern in overtime of their first-round game. While the Gophers lost the next day to Michigan in overtime, Hollins emerged as another scoring threat besides Williams. He scored 13 and 14 points against La Salle and Miami, respectively, and tied Williams with a team-high 24 points in the win against Middle Tennessee.
“We’ve kind of given him more minutes because he’s earned more minutes,” Smith said of Hollins. “He’s playing better.”
Hollins is now averaging 8.5 points per game, providing a compliment on offense to Williams’ 12.1 points per game. Adding another scoring threat has opened things up for Williams.
“My teammates, they’ve been doing a real good job of making it easy for me, because with Andre Hollins, he’s been putting the ball in the hole for us ever since that first Big Ten Tournament game. I think everybody’s stepped up big,” Williams said. “We’ve got guys all around that are being a threat out there so it’s making it a lot easier for me to get the shot opportunities.”
Hollins is one of many Gophers who are gaining valuable postseason tournament experience that they didn’t have prior to this year. This year’s NIT Tournament is the first postseason play for Minnesota’s sophomores as well, as the Gophers failed to earn a tournament bid after a 17-14 finish a year ago.
With nearly all of this year’s squad set to return next year, the Gophers have plenty to gain from a deep postseason run — even if it is the NIT Tournament.
“It’s a teaching tool,” Smith said. “It’s a lot easier to teach when you’re winning; they learn a lot better. They probably retain things better when you’re winning the way we are in this NIT Tournament.