While it’s not THE Final Four, it’s certainly A final four. The Gophers won their third straight road game and overcame a raucous gym full of crazy Tennesseans to continue their impressive run through the NIT, finding themselves in the semifinal round and one game away from a postseason championship game.
Now, I’m not going to hop aboard the positivity train to Happy Town and pretend like being in the final four of the NIT was something we all dreamed about when the season first started, and it certainly doesn’t excuse some of the meltdowns and head-scratching losses that kept us out of the Big Dance to begin with, but let’s all try to remember that this season was all but lost once Trevor Mbakwe crumpled in pain on that Thanksgiving Weekend-fiasco against Dayton. Suddenly, a team expecting to compete in the top half of the Big Ten was all but expected to flounder at the bottom of the standings. But the team came together for a short stretch and made us believe that they were only slightly worse off without Mbakwe and actually looked good. Suddenly our expectations were revived and success didn’t seem that unlikely.
Unfortunately, this was only a facade, and it was painful to accept later on in the season. Losses to Iowa, giving away games to Wisconsin and Northwestern. It seemed like the Gophers should have been in the win column a few more times, but the reality was they just weren’t a good enough team to win that often. Sure, things came together here and there, but with Ralph Sampson basically MIA, this was a young team that spent the whole season trying to find its indentity. And if this NIT run is any indication, they are certainly starting to find it.
Think about it, for most of these guys, this season was the first time they’ve had to face adversity in quite some time. Eliason and Coleman were on state powerhouses in high school – basically never losing. The same can be said about Andre Hollins. Many of these games against superior competition were first-time experiences and facing adversity can be troublesome for freshman. What we’re starting to see in this NIT run is the team realizing, “hey, I’ve been here before.” There’s no more folding, no more playing scared, fewer miscues (sorta). They’re acting like they’ve been there before because they have … the same couldn’t be said earlier in the season.
The Middle Tennessee State victory drove home that sentiment for me. This was the third straight road game against a solid opponent for the Gophers – the team hadn’t played three straight road games all season. Further, the crowd they were facing was loud, mean and obnoxious, and they truly cared about the game. MTSU hasn’t been good in a long time, and even though they were playing in a secondary postseason tournament, the fans were out in full force. It was akin to playing a true road game in the Big Ten (think Iowa). Ordinarily I wouldn’t have given the Gophers a chance, especially considering their performance on the road this entire season. But instead of playing like they were supposed to lose, they played like they were supposed to win. And it was very exciting considering that the guys we’ll need to rely on next year were the guys that wanted the ball and executed.
Rodney Williams played like the leader we’ll need, scoring a career high 24 points and operating in complete control. Andre Hollins continued his unbelievable string of performances scoring 24 points and icing the game down the stretch with free throw after free throw. Austin Hollins hit key three pointers and didn’t force any shots. Elliott Eliason was Johnny-on-the-spot with put backs and offensive rebounds, hitting the short shots and layups he was supposed to hit. The team played the game their way and dared MTSU to keep up. Seeing the guys fly down the court unabated was certainly fun to watch and even more exciting considering that all five guys who got significant minutes last night will all be on the team next season. In fact, the starting lineup we saw will likely be the starting lineup next season, barring a return by Mbakwe.
And the opposition in the NIT is nothing to scoff at. Sure, these aren’t the best teams in the nation by any means, but you still need to be a decent team to even get to the tournament, and the Gophers have already faced three top-100 RPI teams en route to the semifinals – on the road no less. Again, that’s three straight victories against good teams in true road games. That’s not easy to achieve, and the Gophers are only the second team to ever do it.
Now, I was an economics major in college and a principle I always refer to in life is something called a “sunk cost”. That is, losses you’ve already incurred cannot be recovered and shouldn’t affect your rational decisions going forward. Did you invest a lot of money in a stock in 2005 that lost half it’s value? Your original investment is a sunk cost so don’t worry about what you paid for it, worry about what it’s worth now. Will it gain value now from this point forward? Great. Will it lose value? Get rid of it.
I use this analogy because it’s easy to look at this season as a whole and go, “man, we were so close to making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. Now we’re in the stupid NIT, heading to the final four of the friendship tournament.” Yes, the regular season sucked – we didn’t capitalize on many, many opportunities, looked overmatched and immature at times, and generally just didn’t get the job done. Overall it was a failure. But that was then — the regular season is a sunk cost. Dwelling on it does no good. Ralph Sampson is gone next year, Tubby is letting the guys who will get major minutes next year play A LOT and do what they do best, which is push the tempo, and they have looked like a completely different team. It doesn’t feel right, but you have to forget the regular season and move on. Focus on the now.
Instead, look at the NIT for what it is, an opportunity to get REAL game experience against REAL teams in REAL opposing gyms. I’d be hard pressed to think of three things that would benefit a young team more that is trying to jell. And very, very few squads across the country currently have that luxury.
We have good, young talent on this team, but it’s the experience of playing with each other in pressure situations that will help them next year when we have bigger expectations. Yes, it would’ve been sweet to have gotten into the tournament as an 11-seed this year, but a deep NIT run is certainly a decent consolation.