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College Basketball: Gophers miss cut for NCAA tourney

USA TODAY Sports Minnesota Gophers guard Andre Hollins (1) and Gophers center Elliott Eliason (55) walk off the court after losing to the Wisconsin Badgers 83-57 on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The disappointment continued Sunday when the Gophers were passed over for a spot in the NCAA tournament field and instead learned they will play in the NIT beginning Tuesday.

By Marcus R. Fuller

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Making the NCAA tournament was never one of the Year 1 goals for Gophers coach Richard Pitino.

So he never looked at it as being a big disappointment if his team didn’t make it this year.

The fact that Minnesota was on the list of bubble teams that just missed the cut Sunday meant it exceeded early expectations.

Things might be different next year.

But the Gophers (20-13) seemed motivated after Friday’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinal loss to Wisconsin about possibly making a run in either the NIT or NCAA tournament this week.

“Whoever we play, we’re going to hope to win because we’re fortunate to be able to play this game,” Pitino said Friday. “We’re lucky, and our guys enjoy it, they love it. I enjoy coaching it, so I’m not going to take that for granted.”

The Gophers earned a No. 1 seed in the NIT and will host No. 8 High Point (16-14) at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at Williams Arena.

The Panthers won the Big South regular-season title, but they were upset by Winthrop in their first conference tournament game.

If it advances, Minnesota would play the winner of No. 4 St. Mary’s (Calif.) vs. No. 5 Utah at home Thursday. Higher seeds host the first three rounds.

Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo said he thought this season was a success without an NCAA tournament bid.

The Gophers, who lost starters Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Joe Coleman from a team that won an NCAA tournament game last year, were picked to finish ninth in the conference by the media.

They ended seventh with an identical Big Ten record as last year at 8-10. It easily could have been 9-9, with overtime losses to Michigan State and Purdue and a nail-biting loss against Northwestern at home.

“I still think it was a tremendous success, because you’re talking about guys who are in a totally different regime and (system),” Bardo said. “They bought in hook, line and sinker into what Pitino was doing. There was no second guessing their roles or what was going on. I would definitely mark it down as a success.”

Minnesota reached the championship game of the NIT in 2012. It used that experience to win the first NCAA tournament game since 1997 last year.

Junior guard Andre Hollins playing at the level he did in the NIT two years ago and last year’s NCAA tournament would make the Gophers dangerous in the NIT, if they can advance.

The team’s leading scorer made the all-tournament team in the NIT as a freshman. Hollins also had 28 points and 25 points against UCLA and Florida, respectively, a year ago. But he struggled in the Big Ten tournament, scoring just eight points on 2-for-14 shooting in a 26-point loss to the Badgers in Indianapolis.

“The opportunity to play when (not many teams are) in the country, that’s huge right there,” Hollins said Friday. “To keep getting better and competing, that’s all you can ask for is to keep playing basketball.”

Hollins said it would be huge for the Gophers to build some momentum going into next season with more postseason wins.

Pitino loses senior guards Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Malik Smith — and also junior forward Oto Osenieks, who ended his career because of a knee injury.

But three starters are expected to return, including junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu, sophomore forward Joey King and junior center Elliott Eliason. Junior backup center Mo Walker also is the team’s top post scoring presence.

“You (would) go into next year having the confidence with returning players and incoming players being confident in the team,” Andre Hollins said. “So it’s big.”

Mathieu was arguably the team’s MVP this season, especially since Hollins was not himself after suffering an ankle injury in January.

Mathieu, who joined Hollins as an all-conference honorable mention selection, led Minnesota, averaging 15.5 points and five assists in two conference tournament games against Penn State and Wisconsin.

The Gophers, who had a No. 50 RPI and No. 6 strength of schedule, likely need just a victory against the Badgers to get an NCAA at-large bid.

Bubble teams making the NCAA tournament first-round games over them in Dayton, Ohio this year were Iowa, Tennessee, North Carolina State and Xavier.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.