After the Gophers beat Penn State in the first round of Big Ten Tournament, without a win against Wisconsin, they were essentially a coin flip away from making the NCAA tournament. They lost the coin flip to NC State, and instead are a number one seed in the NIT. Minnesota will play Tubby Smith’s alma mater High Point on Tuesday at 7:15 pm at The Barn. If they win that game, they play Utah or St Mary’s, the latter of which will feature former Gopher Joe Coleman next season. If you like intrigue and story lines in a relatively meaningless tournament, there you go.
Every time a team misses the NCAA tournament and ends up in the NIT, someone somewhere, who should know better, claims that a long run in the NIT is better than a loss in the first round of NCAA tournament. This doesn’t acknowledge that low seeds in the NCAA tournament win games every season, and that highly seeded NIT teams under-perform too. The discussion shouldn’t be if the NIT is better for the team, and instead should focus on what good can come out of the NIT.
The best part of the Gophers making the NIT is that there will more basketball. Austin Hollins and Malik Smith will be gone next season, but everyone else on the team will be back. DeAndre Mathieu gets another game or (or more) to work on his decision-making around the rim. Daquein McNeil will get more time to get comfortable on the court. Elliott Eliason can work on his offense, while Mo Walker can work on his defense. The world gets to see more Charles Buggs, and anytime that happens the world is a better place.
The players aren’t the only ones who get some more games under their belt. Richard Pitino will undoubtedly benefit from the experience. The Gophers exceeded expectations, in no small part to Pitino’s coaching, but it is important to remember that this is only his second season as a head coach. The more exposure to new situations and new systems that Pitino encounters in the NIT, the more prepared he will be in seasons to come when those scenarios arise again. Minnesota lost four games this season by one possession or in overtime. If Pitino had a bit more experience, he might have found a way to squeeze one more basket or one more stop out of his team. If he had, the Gophers would be in the NCAA tournament.
A trip to the NIT is disappointing, especially for a team that was perched on the bubble for nearly the entire season. The last trip to the NIT was disappointing too, until it turned in a lot of fun, with #Hollinsanity and a trip New York City. This NIT could be fun too.