Before Dan McHale joined Richard Pitino’s coaching staff, he was an assistant at Seton Hall. The Pirates were in a similar position to the Golden Gophers. They were a high- major program, but usually not the first choice for high-major recruits. Necessity being the mother of invention, the Pirates sought recruits in nontraditional places, especially the Canarias Basketball Academy (CBA). The Gophers are following that same strategy.
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.
Richard Pitino will coach in his first non-conference tournament championship game of his career on Thursday night. The coach on the other bench is no stranger to championship basketball. Richard Pitino was five years old when Brown won the national title in 1988, 22 when Brown won his first NBA title with the Pistons. At age 31, Pitino hopes to give the 73 year old Brown his first N.I.T. championship loss.
That was something, huh? Zips, if and when he wakes up from last night’s mind-numbing, never-ending Gophers win(?) will be back with his typically excellent game review, and I’ll be back later tonight with a preview of the NIT championship (!?) game. I have a few minutes to kill right now, just enough time to discuss some of the coaching situations that arose in the last few minutes last night.
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.
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.
No one wants to play in the N.I.T. but some teams don’t want to play more than others. The first round of this tournament, more than deciding which teams are good at basketball, decides which teams care about playing more basketball. It took the Golden Gophers about 30 minutes to decide they didn’t want their season to end against High Point. Minnesota, despite some sleep-walking, was never in any real danger of an embarrassing season ending loss. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, trailed Utah for 36 minutes, sometimes by double digits. Then they started caring and making three-pointers, and eventually won by 12. Now that we have found two teams that care, we too can focus on basketball.
What a day huh? Four overtimes, a slew of upsets, and as I am writing this, there are still four more games to go. Because of all the overtimes, staggered start-times couldn’t keep games from ending at the same time, and it was beautiful chaos. Let’s hope for some more of that on Friday.
Once upon a time, before we had to remember how to find TruTv or learn of the existence of Lizard Lick Towing, every NCAA tournament game was on CBS. The scheduling types did their best to show games that would interest the audience, usually using geography as their guiding criteria. This meant that Big Ten games were usually on WCCO in Minneapolis, but it also meant that it was impossible to watch the lastest Cinderella hoping for an upset while a highly seeded Big Ten team was curb-stomping some hyphenated state school that no one had every heard of. It could be maddening, but it could also be magical. Because when the powers that be decided a game was out of hand, there was “whip around” coverage, a frantic effort to show as much of the last few seconds of as many games as possible. There was no way to predict what game would be shown, but there was sure to be drama and excitement. It was many shining moments back to back to back. In the Lizard Lick Towing era, it is all too easy to flip on your own to the right game at the right time, but all too difficult to know what game to watch before the waning moments of the latest upset.
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.