The Minnesota Golden Gophers are the first of the remaining Big Ten basketball squads still active in postseason play that is formally headed to the Final Four. Ok, so it’s the NIT Final Four. And it’s probably not even worth mentioning given the March landscape rightly dominated by the Big Dance and glut of NFL news rolling in daily. Regardless, they are going to the City So Nice They Named It Twice with a chance to hoist a 2nd tier trophy. And for those who enjoy underachieving ballers who wear the Maroon and Gold, some good things have been happening. Under the radar of the average Big Ten fan, the Gophers have played some pretty damn good basketball of late.
After closing out the Big Ten regular season by handling a worn down Nebraska, the Gophers went on to tunnel under the foundations of Northwestern’s already weak tourney resume and collapse their hopes in the conference tournament. A tough, close OT loss to Michigan closed their lackluster Big Ten season out, but the NIT came calling. Looking to build on the momentum built from the solid play in their final 3 games, Tubby continued using the younger starting lineup that seemed to be effective in the Big Ten Tourney. That meant running 3 frosh on the floor (Dre Hollins, Joe Coleman, Eliott Eliason), 1 soph (Austin Hollins), and a junior (Rodney Williams) for extended starter minutes. Despite having lone senior Ralph the 3rd injured (knee), the team has produced 3 straight road wins with this line up. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a huge achievement to beat two sub-mid-majors (LaSalle and MTSU) and a completely disengaged ACC opponent (Miami). But before you discredit these wins completely, it’s worth noting that many Gopher fans felt that Tubby had lost the team back in February, and the team was just going thru the motions. Not so.
So what gives in this final stretch of the season? Why the improved play, especially in the NIT? Surely some of it is due to playing outside the rigors of the Big Ten, but perhaps the bigger reason is the growth and expanded play of the freshman, and the development of Rodney Williams as the team’s leader and go-to scorer.
Since getting blown out at home by Indiana on February 26, Tubby decided to take the reins off true freshman point guard Dre Hollins. His response to this increase playing time and starting role has been outstanding to say the least. In his last 7 games he’s averaged 18.1 ppg, and shooting free throws about as well as you can ask (33-35, with many coming in crucial late game moments). Rodney Williams has played equally well and seems ever more comfortable creating his own shot when the team goes into a offensive funk. Joe Coleman seems rejuvenated after a hot start early in the season only to seem to burn out mid-season. Soph Austin Hollins jumper off of curls and screens is falling with regularity. And center Eliason is maximizing his time on the floor with Ralph out, playing excellent defense and rebounding well.
What does this all mean? Mostly that the Gopher basketball program has better chance to improve next season that thought a month ago. The NIT has proven to be a great opportunity for the young Gophers to get better and build momentum into next season. And with Trevor Mbakwe claiming he’ll be back for a 6th year if the NCAA grants it, and the interesting possibility of ASU’s Trent Lockett transferring in for 2012-13, things feel like they are on firmer footing even if Mbakwe and Lockett never set foot on the Raised Floor of Williams Arena next season.