Gophers excited for next year despite NIT loss

Published Mar. 30, 2012 12:17 p.m. EDT

The Minnesota basketball team was blown out by Stanford in Thursday's NIT championship, losing, 75-51.

But should one embarrassing loss take away from what the Gophers accomplished with four straight wins in the past two weeks? Should it make Minnesota fans second-guess whether this team really might be better next season?

No, and no.

Sure, Minnesota looked overmatched in its 24-point loss to Stanford. The Gophers shot just 37.3 percent from the floor and made only three of 13 shots from 3-point range. They committed 22 turnovers and were outrebounded by nine.

But during their postseason run -- even if it was the NIT -- the Gophers gave Minnesota fans reasons for hope next season.

High atop the list of reasons Tubby Smith's squad could be an NCAA Tournament team in 2012-13 is point guard Andre Hollins. The freshman took a while to come into his own, but he became an entirely different player in the postseason. In Minnesota's first game of the Big Ten Tournament against Northwestern, Hollins led the Gophers to an overtime win with a team-high 25 points. The next day, he scored 21 points -- also a team high -- and dished out six assists in Minnesota's loss in overtime to Michigan.

"I think he's starting to understand what his role is. Plus he's always been a good scorer and a good shooter," Smith said of Hollins before his team played in the NIT Final Four. "He led the Big Ten in free throw shooting, so now he's drawing fouls. We've always had trust in him. He's another kid that experienced the ups and downs of a freshman or a kid that's making a transition."

Hollins continued his strong play in the NIT. He scored 13 points against La Salle, 14 against Miami and 24 points versus Middle Tennessee and had 20 points and five assists in the semifinals against Washington. But as Hollins went in the championship, so too did the Gophers. The freshman scored just four points and committed five turnovers in the lopsided loss.

After the game, Hollins took to Twitter to express his disappointment with his individual performance -- but his optimism for next year.

"Wow I played horrible," he tweeted. "(L)ot of work to do in the off season. As a team we came a long way! Excited for next season! Gotta love #gophernation."

That tweet in itself showed Hollins' maturity. Just a freshman, he's already grown into a leader for the Gophers.

Junior forward Rodney Williams also emerged as a leader for Minnesota this season. Williams has always had freakish athletic ability, but he learned how to best use it during his junior year. Along with Hollins, Williams carried the scoring load in the postseason. He had four straight 20-point games, beginning with Minnesota's loss to Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. Williams then went on to score 21, 21 and 24 points in Minnesota's first three NIT games. By comparison, he had just one 20-point game during the regular season.

There's a small chance Williams could leave school a year early to turn pro, but he said at the end of the regular season that he'd be back for his senior year. The Gophers certainly hope that's the case.

The wild card for Minnesota next season is whether senior Trevor Mbakwe opts to use his sixth year of eligibility. Mbakwe tore his ACL in late November and missed the rest of the season. Prior to getting hurt, the St. Paul native was the Gophers' top scorer (14.0 points per game) and rebounder (9.1 rpg).

Had he stayed healthy and continued to produce like he did as a junior, Mbakwe might have been a first-round pick in the NBA draft. Now, he has a decision to make: return for another year to help his draft stock and prove his knee is healthy or take his chances by leaving early. Mbakwe has a few weeks to make that decision, but he said earlier this month that he's leaning toward coming back to Minnesota.

Mbakwe's physical presence in the post is rarely matched in the Big Ten and was something Minnesota lacked after he got hurt. If Mbakwe does return, he will make the Gophers a contender for an NCAA tournament bid next year. Until he makes his decision, though, the maroon and gold faithful will have to wait in anticipation.

"You never know with Trev," Williams said when asked for his gut reaction on whether Mbakwe will return. "But I'm definitely hoping that Trev comes back next year because with him, there's no telling how great this team could be."

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