JF

For the second time in three seasons, the Gophers will play in the N.I.T. semi-finals in New York City. Their opponent, the Florida State Seminoles, failed to make the NCAA tournament in large part because of their loss back in December to the Golden Gophers in the Big Ten – ACC Challenge.  The Gophers will be out for revenge too, in a bit more convoluted way. Their once “good win” over the Seminoles grew more mediocre as the season went on, and as the Seminoles slowly fell apart, so did Minnesota’s chance to return to the NCAA tournament.

Way back in early December, when none of us knew if and when Richard Pitino could win a big game, most expected the Gophers to struggle with the Seminoles’ superior size. The Gophers did look silly at times trying to shoot over the top of one of college basketball’s tallest front lines. Minnesota shot only 30% inside the two-point line, and couldn’t quite break even on the boards. On the season, inside shooting was Minnesota’s greatest offensive strength, so it is even more impressive they were able to beat the Seminoles. Perhaps because of the Gophers’ superior quickness, or because Florida State has atrociously handled the ball all season, Minnesota forced 17 turnovers that resulted in four extra field goal attempts and an extra 9 shots at the free-throw line. If you can’t be accurate, shoot more!

Minnesota will have to rely on speed and quickness again on Tuesday night, because they won’t have enough size. Elliott Eliason probably won’t play at all because of a twisted ankle. Oto Osenieks might attempt a one night come back, but his knee is still shot, and he hasn’t played any competitive basketball in a month.  That leaves Mo Walker, who is plenty big but commits plenty of fouls, and Joey King, who has been playing well when not guarding someone who is 7’3” as Minnesota’s experienced inside players. Charles Buggs has been getting some occasional minutes, but he isn’t likely to solve the size deficit even if he plays a lot.

The N.I.T. run two seasons ago was about the future. This season’s is in large part about the here and now, as eloquently explained last week. The Maverick and Austin redemption tour hopefully continues, but if the Gophers are going to beat the Seminoles, the cogs in next season’s machine will need to step up. If they show that they can against Florida State, the Gophers won’t be back in the N.I.T.

Facing so much size, Maurice Walker and Joey King need to demonstrate that they can defend and rebound without getting in foul trouble. Walker’s offense has steadily improved, and his defense has been decent against shorter front-lines, but he only managed to play 17 minutes before fouling out against FSU earlier this season. Joey King has been playing the best offensive basketball of his life over his last four games, but has mustered only 10 rebounds and a block in that span. Against FSU earlier this season, he managed only 15 minutes and was saddled with four fouls.

Assuming that what is left of the Gopher front court can hold its own, Minnesota’s back court could potentially give the team enough to beat the Seminoles again. Andre Hollins, mired in a weeks long, hopefully injury-induced slump, will need to find a way to score some points. He managed to score 21 points against the Seminoles in the first game, with more than half of those at the free-throw line. Whether he can’t move laterally, or doesn’t think he can, Hollins’ quickness and ability to get to the free-throw line have all but disappeared. If he is little more than a spot-up shooter right now, let us hope he makes his spot-up shots. Dre Mathieu was mostly a non-factor in the game in December, but he has since shown he can score against big back courts on occasion. He’ll have a big offensive burden to carry when even the shortest of Seminoles will have half a foot on him. Don’t be surprised to Daquein McNeil gets a few more minutes than usual.  At 6’3” and close to 200 pounds, he is the only Gopher guard built to defend Florida State, especially since Austin Hollins will be forced to be more of a forward, especially defensively.

Minnesota’s back court will be fine once Andre Hollins can finally rest his ankle. The Gopher front court should be better next season too. But the faster that improvement takes place, the better. And the better it plays in New  York on Tuesday, the better chance the Gophers have to beat Florida State again.