The home careers of Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi, and Malik Smith will come to an end Tuesday night against Southern Mississippi. Unlike senior day, when the finality was hopeful, this will really be the end, win or loss. If the Gophers win, they’ll head to the N.I.T. Final Four for the second time in three seasons, and will earn the trip to New York City on their home floor for the first time since 1998.
It must be restated, again and again, that no matter how beneficial the N.I.T. turns out, it is still second best to even a most disastrous NCAA tournament appearance. However, a lot of good can come out of more basketball, and a lot of excitement. In 1998, the Gophers beat Marquette in front of a packed crowd that eventually, and confusingly, rushed the raised court. It was a raucous affair, the liveliest crowd of the season, and even rivaled the crowds of the Final Four season a year ago. The N.I.T. is a second best affair, but an elimination game, with college careers of the seniors on the line, brings out a lot of passion from fans and players alike.
Besides what should be some interesting basketball, there will be some intriguing not entirely basketball related subplots. Southern Mississippi is coached by Donnie Tyndall. Before being hired by the Eagles, Tyndall coached at Morehead State, and didn’t offer DeAndre Mathieu a scholarship. They’ll reunite on Tuesday, and Mathieu will certainly play like he has something to prove. Hopefully that means he wants to prove that he is a good team-oriented point guard, and doesn’t try to beat an entire team on his own. Former Gopher Chip Armelin, now a reserve for the Eagles, will inevitably have some extra motivation when he return to The Barn for the first time since he transferred. When Trevor Mbakwe was granted an extra season of eligibility, the Gophers had to let a scholarship player go. That player was Chip Armelin.
If revenge and redemption or elimination game drama weren’t enough, the basketball should be pretty interesting too. Like the Gophers, Southern Mississippi was a bubble team that stumbled just enough in their conference tournament to miss out on the NCAA tournament. Unlike the Gophers, who played a difficult schedule but didn’t win enough games, the Eagles won plenty of games but didn’t really play any good teams. They have a 29-6 record with a road win at North Dakota State which is respectable. Their second best win was either Georgia State or Louisiana Tech, another Conference USA team that didn’t play anyone.
Winning 29 games, regardless of the competition, isn’t an accomplishment to take too lightly, and the Eagles could pose some problems for the Gophers. They can’t shoot well, ranking 123rd in the effective field goal percentage, but they do find ways to get plenty of extra shots. They are 10th in the country in offensive rebounding, 12th in getting to the free-throw line, and 9th in forcing turnovers. They don’t need to shoot better than their opponents to win, but because they shoot poorly, it becomes very difficult for them to win without those extra scoring changes.
Considering their personnel, it isn’t surprising that the Eagles can force a lot of turnovers, but it is shocking that they rebound so well. They don’t have any players taller than 6’7”, and their best rebounder and one of the best in the country, is the 6’5” forward Michael Craig. Without size, the only way to rebound is with positioning and quickness. If the Gophers rely on their size to track down missed shots, Southern Mississippi will get too many second chances. Besides Craig, who is second on his team in assists, 6’7” Davaeon Bordingham is more of a traditional post-player, who blocks a lot of shots, sometimes instead of focusing on rebounding. On the perimeter, diminutive guards Neil Watson and Jerrold Brooks are serviceable three-point shooters, but really struggle scoring inside the three-point line, where they each shoot around 40%. Aaron Brown, a 6’5” forward, can score inside and out, and especially at the free-throw line where he has made 108 free-throws this season. Chip Armelin, in case you were wondering, is statistically the same old Chip with a bit more discretion. He doesn’t shoot nearly as often as he did when he played for the Gophers but he can finally make lay-ups, and is shooting 60% on two-point shots.
On Tuesday, the stakes won’t be nearly as high as if the Gophers were playing in that other tournament that people actually care about, but the season is on the line. If the Gophers lose, they will be done. If they win they’ll head to Madison Square Garden where they’ll get a rematch with Florida State or a chance to beat Louisiana Tech.