Mission accomplished. The Golden Gophers’ post-season has already been a resounding success, and the opportunity to play two more games against solid competition in the arena that claims to be the most famous (the Roman Colosseum humbly disagrees) could lead to a mass outbreak of irrational exuberance. Over the last few weeks, we learned that this team could win basketball games, and in entertaining fashion. Add the news of Trevor Mbakwe’s potential return for senior year part two, and more than a few Gopher fans are eagerly awaiting November. Who needs summer after last winter, and a chance to skip months of political ads would be pretty fantastic too.
The post-season goals, now reached, and them some, were modest and befitting of a team that only won six conference games:
1. Practice and play as much as possible.
The Gophers are closing in on three extra weeks of practice and will play at least four extra games. In the process, the team has gained confidence and learned to win on the road.
2. Find a sustainable rotation and style of play.
Tubby Smith is going only two or three players into his bench, and is only using players that should be on the team next season. The team has also been playing aggressive offense and defense, getting to the free-throw line, and crashing the glass. This is what fans have been begging for over the last season and half.
3. End the season on a positive note.
Last season ended poorly on the court and led to an unexpected transfer off the court. Fan interest was starting to wane. A coaching controversy was on the verge of erupting, with real fear of another round of mass transfers. Now, the focus is on basketball again, with optimism approaching levels not seen since Tubby Smith was hired.
In short, the Gophers NIT run so far has been the best possible outcome to a less than best season. Things could get even better with a win against Washington, which would rival the Middle Tennessee road win as the second most impressive win of the season.
Washington’s appearance in the NIT solidified the Pac-12’s status as a mid-major. Even though the Huskies won the conference regular season championship with a 14-4 record, their flame out in their first conference tournament game secured their automatic bid in the NIT. It was another odd loss for a team that should be better. In December they lost to Duke and Marquette by a total of three-possessions, so they are at least capable of playing with some very good teams. They were also run off their home court by South Dakota State. They also beat Northwestern by 20 earlier in the NIT, and dominated USC in two games in their only other games against common opponents.
Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar has been in the hot seat a bit not necessarily because of wins and losses but because of a failure to meet the lofty expectations of his recruits. Troy Wroten, a freshman was ranked the 5th best point guard in his class. Terrance Ross, a sophomore, was ranked the fifth best small forward in his class. In a sport like college basketball in which one great player can guide a team to the promised land, two super-recruits had Washington basketball fans scouting future Final Four destinations. Wroten and Ross have been impressive, even if their gaudy statistics haven’t led to national prominence for their team. Wroten has struggled shooting from the outside (9-55 three-point shooting on the season) and ball handling (more turnovers than assists) but he is averaging a team leading 16.2 points per game on 45% shooting from the field. He is not a one and done type player. He could be a two and done player. Terrance Ross has averaged 15.3 points per game on 46% shooting, is a reliable outside shooter (37% three-point shooting) and is second on the team with 6.4 rebounds per game. Ross is joined in the front court by the very large Aziz N’Diaye (8 points and 8 boards per game). Wroten’s back court mates are C.J. Wilcox (14.3 points per game on 41% three-point shooting) and Abdul Gaddy (8 points and 5 assist per game).
As you can tell, the Huskies are an offensive juggernaut that averages 75 points per game and scored more than 90 points five times this season. The offense is actually .01 points per possession less efficient than Minnesota’s offense, but they play at a much faster pace of 69.9 possessions per game. The Gophers have only reached 69 possessions four times this season and are 3-1 in those games. The Huskies don’t shoot well, ranking 161st in three-point shooting and 107th in two point shooting, both much worse than the Gophers, but they often have several more field goal attempts than their opponents due to their elite offensive rebounding which ranks 15th in the nation. The Gophers are a very good offensive rebounding team at 27th in the country, so they can hopefully neutralize the Huskies greatest strength. Close games are often lost at the free-throw line, and Washington doesn’t get there much more than the average team and shoots free-throws like an average eighth grade team (62.4%).
A team with an offense that can score like Washington’s does not end up in the NIT without a defense that can struggle at times. They are down right bad at forcing turnovers, though the Gophers’ never-ending generosity with the basketball should give them some extra possessions. They foul often, much too often for a team that does not force turnovers. These fouls are not the result of aggressiveness and instead are the result of being in poor position and inattentiveness. They defend two-pointers and three-pointers adequately but are not adept at blocking shots despite being the 8th tallest team in college basketball.
Even if the Gophers keep winning, I’m not budging on my suggestion that any NCAA tournament loss is better than an NIT championship, but this team desperately needed something good to happen. Playing a power conference team on national television is unequivocally good. If Twitter is any indication, the team is having a blast and enjoying a vacation with a bit of basketball mixed in. No one dreams of winning the NIT, and NIT championships don’t often make it into recruiting pitches, but maybe it should. A free trip to New York after a season in which everything went wrong isn’t a bad thing.