Last week the Gophers won their first post-season basketball game of the Tubby Smith era. Now they take their talents to Coral Gables (which I am told is almost South Beach) to take on the Miami Hurricanes, one of the few team that could argue they were an NCAA tournament snub.
The N.I.T. is not where the Gophers want to be, but the additional games and practice time should help prepare them for next year, especially since they return their full active roster roster. If the Gophers had lost their first round game to La Salle, that lone positive of a meaningless post-season tournament would have been negated. If they can keep winning and therefore keep playing, they might just salvage something positive this season, and next.
One of the more beneficial aspects of a poor seed in the N.I.T. is that it gives the Gophers a chance to win on the road against teams of similar quality. The Gophers did not excel away from Williams Arena this season, winning two neutral site games (in the Old Spice Classic) against much worse teams, two against teams of similar quality on a neutral court (La Salle and Northwestern), and two road wins against bad teams (Penn State and Nebraska). The still hard to believe win at Indiana is the only victory away from home against a team better than the Gophers. Meanwhile, the list of losses in winnable road and neutral games includes Dayton, Illinois, Northwestern, and Iowa. If the Gopher had managed to win two of those games, they would likely be in the NCAA tournament.
By beating La Salle, the Gophers also earned the opportunity to play against a different style of team. While La Salle was tiny and loved to push the pace, the Miami Hurricanes are huge and play at pace consistent with most Big Ten teams. When I write that they are huge, I mean it. Reggie Johnson is one of the heavier players in all of college basketball, checking in at around 300 pounds on a 6’10” frame. He is joined in the front court by Kenny Kadji who 6’11 and 251 pounds is a formidable force on his own. The Hurricane’s back court is small and quick with decent shooters, so the Gophers will need to selectively double-team the post.
Despite their size, Miami struggles to rebound the basketball. Being in the right place at the right time is the key to rebounding, and the Hurricane front line is not the fleetest of foot. If the Gophers can be in good rebounding position, they should be able to control the boards. However, it should be obvious that they won’t be able to jump over anyone to get those rebounds. The Hurricanes also tend to shy away from getting the ball down low and attempt three-pointers on 37% of their field goal attempts. In short, while Miami has the size, they don’t always use it.
If the Gophers keep winning, you’ll likely hear some rumblings that an N.I.T. championship is better than a one and done appearance in the other more meaningful tournament. If you hear these rumblings, please immediately dismiss them as crazy talk. The media attention, free publicity, and recruiting even from a dreadful tournament appearance far outweighs the benefit of extra playing time that an N.I.T. run would garner. However, if deep N.I.T. run leads to a deep NCAA tournament run next year, then this post-season could prove invaluable.
And a deep run is possible. Miami’s best player is suspended due to receiving impermissible benefits, and only 1,200 people bothered to watch their first round NIT game. If there is a scenario in which the Gophers could win another game away from home against an arguably better team, this is it.