It’s been a weird season so far for the Gophers. Uncertain expectations before the season, followed by initial excitement, followed by actual excitement, followed by February frustration, followed by hope, followed by disappointment, and finally followed by rejuvenation and inspiration.
Inspiration? Let me back up a second.
Many pundits before the season picked the Gophers to finish dead last in the Big Ten. Like, behind Northwestern and Penn State. For a team that’s enjoyed success (at least by our standards) for the past few years, that was a tough pill to swallow. I didn’t particularly believe any of it, but the truth was we didn’t actually know what was in store for the team this year. We had a brand new, unproven coach and a patchwork roster headlined by several mid-major misfits. It wasn’t anything to be particularly excited about, but we also had no idea how the team would perform prior to November. It was clear, though, that this team was not going to win the conference.
But that wasn’t really the point. Success was proving the doubters wrong. Success was not finishing in the conference cellar. No one expected the team to finish higher than 7th in the conference or come close to the NCAA Tournament. No one expected major victories or upsets or cohesiveness or the ability to really be taken seriously. That’s why before the season I didn’t want or expect anything more than to be part of the bubble conversation by the end of the year.
Is that low-hanging fruit? Maybe. But it was realistic at the time and in hindsight. No one aims for an NIT bid, and for the final two months of the season the Gophers actually played themselves OUT of an at-large Big Dance invitation. But after the final buzzer sounded against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers, regardless of which order they won or lost games this year, had exceeded expectations. For a first year coach, a bunch of juniors who had never played together before and some first-year guys, that’s huge.
Fast forward to the NIT. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a player and work your ass off to reach the limelight of the NCAA Tournament, only to be told that you’re one of the first teams left out. I know what it feels like as a fan and I don’t even play. So to get re-inspired enough to actually go out in front of a cynical fan base and play for a virtual consolation prize takes a team that is both humble and unpretentious. Even more so for a team that actually wins games.
For those that have followed the team’s NIT run, it’s been pretty entertaining. The games haven’t actually been that close by the end, but the Gophers have overcome some major hurdles early on where most teams who would rather not be there would pack it in. Seriously, for a team to rebound after being down 14-0 in an NIT game means they actually care, and it’s that drive that’s keeping us engaged throughout this run, even if it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek.
The most inspiring part of this, by far, has been the seniors on the team, by far, and Austin Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi in particular. Here you have two guys who have both been through the NIT ringer and the NCAA experience. In their final seasons they’re now left out of the Big Dance with little else to play for. How do you even get motivated for another NIT run when you were so close to what every college basketball player dreams about? But there they are, out there playing their asses off — Austin Hollins dropped a career high last night and scored 12 straight points — TWELVE. And he was having a blast out there. Maverick Ahanmisi is probably playing the best basketball of his life right now and he’s looking like a leader. No one on this team is out there going through the motions, especially the guys who are on their way out and might have an excuse. That stands out to me in a big way. And it speaks even more to the quality of leadership, on the bench and on the court.
So I sit here and wonder what the Gophers would have done in NCAA Tournament this year, but only for a second. Instead, I see the team owning up to the situation and taking it seriously. They’re beating good teams handily and developing some great chemistry. It’s a great swan song for the seniors and great team building for the underclassmen. And if we learned anything from the NIT run a couple years ago, it pays huge dividends in subsequent years.
Sure, it ain’t the Big Dance, but this team should be commended for what it has accomplished this year. Before the season started we had no idea what was in store for them. Five months later we have a pretty good idea. And I’m stoked about it.