Gophers aim to repeat long 2012 NIT run

MINNEAPOLIS — For many basketball teams snubbed by the NCAA, the NIT might stand for the Not Interested Tournament. The Gophers, however, know how valuable it can be.

Two years ago, Minnesota was lucky to be selected for college basketball's also-rans postseason tournament and reached the championship game in New York's Madison Square Garden.

"This is a completely different team for the most part," said senior guard Austin Hollins, one of three starters remaining from the 2011-12 team that lost to Stanford in the NIT final. "We just have to go into this thing with everyone believing we can win it."

The Gophers (20-13) bring a No. 1 seed into Tuesday's first-round game against eighth-seeded High Point (16-14) at Williams Arena.

Coach Richard Pitino is looking forward to his team gaining postseason experience. He can use it, too, in his first season at Minnesota and second as a head coach. His Florida International team was one win short of making the NCAA tournament last season, losing in the Sun Belt Conference tournament final.


"I know there's going to be a bit of a hangover period (about missing the NCAA tournament)," Pitino said. "But for me, as a young coach, getting an opportunity for me to get better as a coach and to continue to coach, to potentially get to Madison Square Garden as a Northeasterner, is something that excites me."

The big difference between the 2012 NIT and this year's is that the Gophers, should they advance, would be host their first three games as the top seed. They were a No. 6 seed two years ago and had to win three straight road games at La Salle, Miami (Fla.) and Middle Tennessee to reach the Final Four in New York.

The Gophers upset top seed Washington before losing to the third-seeded Cardinal.

Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins and Elliott Eliason were starters during that 2012 NIT run. This season, they have all started in 30 of 33 games.

"It was a great experience to go that far, being able to travel and go to New York," Austin Hollins said. "It means a lot that we played well together. As long as everyone is on the same page, I think we can make some noise."

But Pitino said his team won't go far without improving defensively. The Gophers allowed Wisconsin to shoot 55 percent from the field in an 83-57 loss in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals last Friday in Indianapolis.

"That was something we addressed yesterday," Pitino said. "That was one of our weaker defensive performances, where we were becoming a much better defensive team."

Pitino was honest with this players during Sunday's practice, telling them he didn't think they would make the NCAA tournament. Iowa, Florida State and Richmond -- teams the Gophers beat -- falling out of the RPI top 50 ultimately cost them, he said.


"I would've guessed 40 percent chance of getting in," Pitino said. "What happened, honestly, it was our quality wins stopped becoming quality wins. We played a top-five, whatever it ended up being, strength of schedule (and) you get to 20 wins; normally that's a recipe to get in."

But Pitino said he was pleasantly surprised by the improvement of centers Eliason and Mo Walker this year, and that point guard DeAndre Mathieu, a junior college transfer, and forward Joey King, a Drake transfer, also exceeded the coach staff's expectations.

King hopes to keep improving in the postseason. He said his teammates won't let their disappointment about not making the NCAA tournament linger into the NIT.

"That's not something we're going to feel sorry for ourselves about," he said. "We've made plenty of mistakes this season, and we've accomplished a lot of things at the same time. So it's just something we have to fight through, and we're looking forward to playing."

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