Once Trevor Mbakwe crumpled to the court with a torn ACL in an ultimately meaningless game, the focus shifted for the Golden Gophers. Making a run at the NCAA tournament was still the goal, but avoiding a horrendous collapse would be more important. They avoiding a collapse of the horrendous variety, and only had an ordinary collapse, allowing the team an opportunity to salvage something from their disappointment. That something is a deep run in the N.I.T. tournament.
By beating Northwestern, and staving off the apocalypse, the Gophers earned the right to play in a meaningless tournament that will hopefully look very meaningful next March. The N.I.T. is not really about trying to win a championship or a shot at redemption as Paul Simon once wrote. It is about giving a team that returns all but one player a year from now more opportunities to practice and play together. It gives them more chances to experience stressful situations in late game. It is an opportunity to learn how to win close games. In other words, it is about playing in this tournament this year so they can play in the tournament that matters next year.
Minnesota’s first game at LaSalle should be a good challenge. This is the Gophers first game against the Catholic school located in Philadelphia since 1965. Those were the good old days for the Explorers just over a decade after they won their only national championship. Since then the axis of the college basketball universe shifted west. They finished the season tied for fifth in the Atlantic 10, which was not enough to make the NCAA tournament. Their best win was against Xavier. They beat Bucknell and lost to Dayton, a lot like the Gophers.
Stylistically, the Explorers should remind you of the Iowa Hawkeyes. They play small and push the tempo, featuring four guards and one true post player, who at 6’8” is hardly an intimidating presence down low. Jerrell Wright is the only true post player who gets major minutes. He is an efficient scorer and rebounder though is prone to foul trouble, collecting at least four fouls on 14 occasions this season. If the Minnesota can get him in foul trouble, La Salle could be in trouble. The guards are certainly the key to their success, and when they are good, they can be very good. Earl Pettis leads the team in scoring and loves to shoot. He is much better scoring off the dribble, but also made 57 three-pointers on 35% outside shooting. Ramon Galloway is a very good rebounder despite being only 6’3” and is his team’s best three-point shooter. Only 60 players in the country played more minutes than Tyreek Duren. He led the team in assists while also shooting 40% from the outside. Sam Mills rounds out the starting line-up and like seemingly every one else also shoots 40% from behind the three-point line. Joe Coleman’s high school teammate D.J. Peterson actually leads the team shooting 47% from the outside on only 51 attempts on the season.
La Salle’s statistical profile is what you would expect from such a guard oriented team. They are very good shooting from the outside and absolutely horrible rebounding the basketball. They ranked 8th in the country in three-point shooting percentage, though they only attempted about a third of their shots from the outside, only slightly more than the average team. Also, perhaps because of their size issues, they rarely get to the free-throw line. Expect to see a lot of jump shots on Wednesday night. The Explorers struggled mightily on both the offense and defensive glass, ranking 296th and 256th in those categories.
Given the Gophers inconsistent success at defending three-pointers, they’ll have to find extra shot attempts to make up for what will likely be better shooting by the Explorers. Offensive rebounding is the most obvious way for that to happen. Even without Trevor Mbakwe, the Gophers were the 35th best offensive rebounding team in the country and at least not horrible on the defensive glass. They will need to get second chance points and limit the Explorers’ second chance points. They’ll also need to take care of the ball. If they continue committing turnovers on more than one out of five possessions like they have been, rebounding won’t matter.
In Indianapolis we saw Andre Hollins turn into the dynamic team leader we hoped he would be and Rodney Williams finally taking some initiative on offense. Those two player will determine how well the Gophers do in the N.I.T. and will be the key to next season. Unsurprisingly, they are also the two player that will help the Gophers win the rebounding battle (Williams) and limit turnovers (Hollins).
No one has the goal of making the N.I.T, but if you have to play in it, why not hope to win it, and never come back.