I had planned to write about the reasons why the Golden Gophers N.I.T. championship mattered. I do think it matters and I’ll still write about why, but context matters too. The game of college basketball isn’t nearly as important as the lives of the people who are touched by the game we love. The twitterati, along with fans of teams that were able to participate in the NCAA tournament, snarkily declared the N.I.T. championship meaningless. In the grand scheme of things, it was meaningless. The world of college basketball, today alone, provided two examples of how a kids game played by kids and young adults doesn’t mean a whole lot in the tapestry of life. Lacey Holsworth died way too young of a disease too horrible. Meanwhile, UMass guard Derrick Gordon is finally himself, and finally happy. Death, and (a fuller, happier) life mean a lot more than any basketball game, any basketball season.
In the proper context of a kids’ game, here is why the N.I.T. mattered.
1,. People decided the N.I.T. mattered.
Just got #Gophers-SMU local TV ratings. Holy bleep! Peaked at a 13 rating. For comparison: 10p SportsCenter normally does a 0.1 rating.
— Darren Wolfson (@DarrenWolfson) April 7, 2014
Not to get too tautological, but when that many people watch a basketball game that supposedly doesn’t matter, that game suddenly does matter. At the most watched moment of the N.I.T. championship game, 13% of all televisions in use in the Twin Cities were tuned into the game. With an 8 o’clock start time, and a blizzard raging outside, that is an awful lot of people, an awful lot of interest, an awful lot of potential future ticket holders, merchandise buyers, and donors to future facilities upgrades.
2. The Gophers made the most of their shot at redemption. Think back about a month ago. Austin Hollins was struggling, and it appeared his senior season would end on a sour note. Malik Smith was losing minutes to Maverick Ahanmisi. Oto Osenieks had retired because of an arthritic knee. Thanks to the N.I.T. Austin Hollins scored a career high in his final home game and made the last shot of his career to beat SMU. Malik Smith finally made not just another shot, but two three-pointers in the N.I.T. Championship game. Oto Osenieks got to play meaningful minutes again against both FSU and SMU, even if he could barely walk by the end of his last game.
3. The Gophers finally finished strong. Minnesota trailed SMU by 7 points with 7 minutes left, but finished the game on a 19-10 run. They trailed the Seminoles in the final four minutes of regulation, and again in overtime, before finding a way to avoid losing. They trailed Southern Mississippi by nine in the early going, before winning semi-comfortably. They trailed St. Mary’s 14-0, before winning by double digits. According to Ken Pomeroy, at the bleakest moment of the FSU game the Gophers had only a 32% chance of winning. When the Gophers faced a 7 point deficit deep in the second half of the SMU game, they had only a 10% chance to win. The Gophers were becoming known as a team that could start fast but would flail down the stretch. They did the opposite, and won, in the N.I.T.
4. The Gophers finally had quality wins away from home. Failing to beat quality teams outside of The Barn was the number one reason why the Gophers failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The Richmond win got worse as the season went on, and beating Penn State and Northwestern wasn’t enough to convince the selection committee that Minnesota could be competitive with a good team on a neutral court. Florida State finished 41st in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, and SMU finished 30th. If wins of that caliber happened in November or December, the Gophers would have made the NCAA tournament. Better late then never I suppose.