Hiding within the massive shadow cast by the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Minnesota Golden Gophers have quietly worked their way thru an interesting mix of middling opponents and into the NIT Championship Game. The Big Ten’s 9th place team has taken down LaSalle in Philly, ‘Da U’ in Miami, Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro, and the Washington Huskies on Tuesday in MSG. Tonight in the finals they face a similarly young and inexperienced team in the Stanford Cardinal. Nope, it ain’t the Big Dance, but it’s something. A bit of hope has been rekindled for Gopher hoops fans. And it isn’t because the Gophers have chance to win a 2nd tier banner to hoist (though that’s a nice, in its own way).
Why the feel-good attitude then? Well, at the risk of regurgitating part of my last NIT-related post, it’s because the team has finally begun to gel, and they are getting strong performances out of their young players. If the Gophers win tonight, freshman Dre Hollins stands to be the likely NIT MVP. He has been unbelievably clutch at the end of games, in a way not seen since the days of Bobby Jackson. Rodney Williams has been unguardable for stretches of every game. Hell, even Andre Ingram has been valuable in portions of his expanded minutes. The Gophers are also winning shorthanded, missing their lone senior Ralph the 3rd (knee), and reserve wingman Oto Osenieks (concussion). This transformation has been statistically detailed over at ‘From the Barn’.
Things are looking up. No, the basketball isn’t perfect – there have still been some sloppy moments (the final 2 minutes of regulation and the OT vs. Washington particularly so), but they are closing out and winning. With less experience and depth. Add the fact that Trevor Mbakwe was recently granted a 6th year of eligibility (his decision to go/stay still officially pending), and things could look even better for the 2012-13 season.
I got to witness a NIT championship run in 1998 (since vacated in the wake of Clem Haskin’s dismissal), but it didn’t have the same excitement or interest level for me then (as the Gophers went to the Final Four the year before – also vacated). Given the way this 2011-12 regular season went, this NIT run has been a treat. There is always something to be said about getting to play multiple games in any one-and-done format, and continuing to win. Especially when it involves some fun team travel to Philly, Miami, and the Big Apple. This is also how you rationalize continuing to be a complete rube for your alma mater’s team despite their woes and shortcomings (guilty).
So scoff at me if you must, but I’m excited to watch my Gophers hit the hardwood one final time this season. Bring on Stanford. Win or lose tonight, the Gophers have already built something positive to carry into next season.