The rationale behind the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s decision to exclude Minnesota was not that the Gophers weren't among the nation’s 68 best teams. It was that, compared to other teams that were selected, they did not accomplish enough during the regular season.
In selecting and seeding the field, the committee does not intend to predict how teams will perform; the goal is to reward or punish teams based on their respective bodies of work. This is an important distinction to draw.
In its 65-63 win over Southern Methodist in the National Invitational Tournament championship game Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, Minnesota showed it was good enough to play in the NCAA Tournament. It did not, however, prove that the committee made a mistake in leaving Minnesota out. The bigger takeaway from the win is what it could portend for the Gophers next season.
After SMU guard Nic Moore drained two free throws with 57 seconds remaining to tie the score at 59, Minnesota forward Austin Hollins drained a three for a three-point lead. Moore converted a layup to cut the deficit to one, but a pair of free throws from guard Andre Hollins in the final seconds provided a three-point cushion that allowed the Gophers to hold on. Austin Hollins scored a game-high 19 points, Andre Hollins added 14 and guard Deandre Mathieu had 13 and seven assists. Moore paced the Mustangs with 17 points and seven assists.
While the NIT doesn’t draw nearly as many eyeballs as the NCAA Tournament, this year’s final featured an intriguing coaching matchup: Hall of Famer Larry Brown vs. 32-year-old Richard Pitino, the son of a hall of famer. With father Rick looking on from the sidelines, Pitino’s team got the best of Brown’s.
Make no mistake, both of these teams could have done some damage in the big boy bracket, but for different reasons. Entering Thursday, Minnesota wielded an offense ranked in the top 40 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings, while SMU’s defense ranked in the top 20. Behind Austin and Andre Hollins, the Gophers shot 49 percent from the field and did just enough to overcome SMU’s stingy D.
Reaching the NIT championship game is not a crowning achievement, but it recent years it has served as a springboard of sorts. Four of the last seven teams to win college hoops’ other postseason tournament, and six of the last seven runner-ups, made the NCAAs the next year. Two of the winners, Baylor in 2014 and West Virginia in 2008, advanced to the Sweet 16, while two runners-up, Baylor in 2010 and North Carolina in 2011, advanced to the Elite Eight.
The Gophers appear in good position to make a push for the field of 68 next season, as four starters – including starting backcourt tandem Mathieu and Hollins, two of the Gophers’ three leading scorers this season – return. Additionally, coach Richard Pitino should have a better feel for the rugged Big Ten with a year of experience under his belt. With a pair of tantalizing Final Four matchups on tap this weekend, college basketball fans probably won’t pay too much attention to Minnesota’s win. But in a few months, as we gear up for the 2014-15 season, they may want to look back and remember how the Gophers finished 2013-14. This year’s NIT champions look poised to improve next season.