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.
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.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers survived February, their cruelest month, and now head to Michigan to start the month of madness. Despite the encouraging in over Iowa earlier this week, Minnesota is still firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. Michigan, who long ago secured their spot in the NCAA tournament, continues to battle Michigan State for the conference title.
Life on the bubble, and particularly life on the bubble in the Big Ten, is full of second, third, and fourth chances. The Minnesota Golden Gophers have yet another opportunity to save their season on Tuesday night when the Iowa Hawkeyes come to town for a nationally televised game. A rivalry that seemed to be on the verge of death a few years ago is once again alive and well. The Gophers ruined Iowa’s chance to make the NCAA tournament with an Austin Hollins buzzer beater a year ago. Iowa hopes to send the Minnesota to the NIT this year. College basketball is nothing without rivalries, and it is much better when those rivalry games matter.
Everyone talks about the NCAA tournament bubble this time of year, but a better metaphor is probably a cliff. After losing a very winnable game against last place Illinois, the Golden Gophers are perched three short steps from the precipice. With each regular season loss, they get a step closer, and at step number three, they go over the edge, crashing into the NIT. A path to the NCAA tournament still exists, but it is fraught with danger.
It wouldn’t be February without a bit of drama surrounding the Golden Gophers basketball program, both on and off the court. In a complete unexpected turn of events, the drama might not be unwelcome. On the court, Minnesota’s win over Northwestern means the Illinois game on Wednesday has big NCAA tournament implications. Off the court, Wally Ellenson has chosen the sport at which he is most likely to succeed.
Two-thirds of the Big Ten season has gone by, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers are still the worst defensive team in the Big Ten. It is too late in the season to hope that they’ll become a good defensive team, probably too late to hope they’ll become average, and will soon be too late to think they can get out of the defensive cellar. The Gophers are not going to win any games because of their defense. However, there is a glimmer of hope that the defense, on occasion, will be just good enough to allow Minnesota’s offense to win. Sunday evening at Northwestern would be a fine time for that to happen.
The Golden Gophers saved their season with a gut-wrenching 66-60 win over the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday. A win over the Badgers on Thursday night would inch the Gophers closer to something exceedingly rare, a stress-free Selection Sunday.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Indiana Hoosiers, who play each other in a rather important game for NCAA tournament purposes on Saturday evening, find themselves in nearly the same position. Both teams are on the bubble, trying to take charge of their own destiny, lest they be forced to hope that other teams play themselves out of the NCAA tournament. However, while Gopher fans (and players unfortunately) have begun to panic about their NCAA tournament prospects, Indiana fans think that is so six weeks ago, and are now becoming more confident as the season progresses. Expectations are to blame.