Minnesota vs WVirginia set for Puerto Rico title
They came to Puerto Rico unranked and, perhaps, a bit under-appreciated.
One of them will leave the island undefeated, a tournament champion out of a solid field, and will likely land in The Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Minnesota and West Virginia - Tubby vs. Huggy - have made Sunday's championship in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament more about early season bragging rights. It's given a glimpse of how good these teams can play and why this might not be the only tourney this season where they can go deep.
''We can't be too excited about what we're doing right now,'' Minnesota guard Blake Hoffarber said.
It's hard to believe him the way Golden Gophers hugged, high-fived and mobbed each other in front of their bench after they knocked off the No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels in coach Tubby Smith's signature win since he took over in 2007. At Coliseo de Puerto Rico, the Golden Gophers (4-0) totally shut down preseason All-America freshman Harrison Barnes and completely spoiled a tournament in which the Tar Heels were supposed to showcase their return to prominence.
Instead, it might be the Gophers time to shine.
Or the eight-team tournament might belong to the Mountaineers (3-0).
Coming off their first run to the Final Four since 1959, West Virginia lost top scorer and assists leader Da'Sean Butler, defensive specialist and leading rebounder Devin Ebanks and starting forward Wellington Smith. Coach Bob Huggins is finding new ways to get his team ready for another shot at playing into late March.
His latest find might be junior college transfer Casey Mitchell. Mitchell, a 6-foot-4 guard, played sparingly last year in his first season under Huggins and showed little of his sharp-shooting form. He averaged 3.7 points last season - then was suspended early this season for violating team rules.
They sure needed him Friday against Vanderbilt. Mitchell shook off a slow start to deliver clutch buckets in the second half. He scored a career-high 31 points and hit the winning 3-pointer in the final seconds to beat Vanderbilt.
''I watched some film and I wasn't following through,'' Mitchell said. ''I'd just shoot it and put my hand down or shoot it and yank my arm back. So I just left it up there a couple times to see what it'd do and it went in.''
It's up to Minnesota to make him a non-factor, just like they did with the super-hyped Barnes (0 for 12; six points).
''They've got to be sky-high with the big win on a last-second shot, so they'll come in with a lot of confidence,'' Smith said.
Smith has his most talented team yet at Minnesota and those NCAA tournament first-round exits might be a thing of the past. Hoffarber, Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III have all put up huge numbers in the first two games in Puerto Rico.
Sampson had 22 points, seven blocked shots and eight rebounds in a win over Western Kentucky and 12 points against the Tar Heels. Hoffarber hit five big 3s that hushed the pro-Tar Heels crowd and made sure the Gophers never trailed in the second half. Mbakwe was a rebound shy of a double-double in both games.
''Any time you get a win vs. a top-10 team early on a neutral court, it's great for the team,'' Mbakwe said. ''Once we get Devoe (Joseph) back, once we add him back to the mix, we're going to be very good.''
Joseph was suspended indefinitely this month for a violation of team rules, taking the Gophers' most versatile offensive player out of the lineup. The 6-foot-3 junior from Canada averaged 9.4 points last season but was going to be relied upon this year with the departure of seniors Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson.
Without him, they beat 2010 NCAA tournament team Wofford, a solid mid-major in Siena and the Tar Heels.
Smith credited a team trip to Canada that include sightseeing in the mountains, some bonding and, most important, a few extra exhibition games against the local colleges as a reason for the encouraging start.
''They got to know each other, guys enjoy each other, they like playing together,'' Smith said. ''That's so important in the chemistry and the makeup of the team. That's what I see happening right now with this group.''
Each coach has been to a Final Four: Smith won the 1998 national title at Kentucky; Huggins went last season and in 1992 with Cincinnati. Winning this tournament might be a blip in their careers, but could leave a sizable imprint on the path of their seasons.
''I don't know if a championship is so special,'' Hoffarber said. ''Hopefully, we can keep winning.''