Men’s hoops accepts NIT fate

by Jabari Ritchie

As he silently shot baskets on a deserted Williams Arena floor on Sunday evening, Minnesota forward Rick Rickert expressed his disappointment in his team’s postseason fate without saying a word.

Most of Rickert’s teammates donned letter jackets and street clothes as they exited the arena where the Gophers had watched the NCAA tournament selection broadcast together, but the Big Ten freshman of the year headed to the court alone with his head down, sporting his black warm-up jersey.

Minnesota’s captains and head coach Dan Monson stood courtside, answering media questions about narrowly missing the NCAA tournament and their consolation bid to the NIT. But Rickert stayed on the floor, not returning glances from his peers and coach.

“They would have probably erupted with joy if we’d made it, but guys knew that we had plenty of opportunities and we just didn’t capitalize on them,” said senior forward Dusty Rychart. “There was just silence.”

The silence from the Gophers’ leading scorer and most dominating player was understandable. Minnesota had its chances.

With the Big Ten tournament and their hopes of an NCAA bid behind them, the Gophers have nothing but pride to play for when they host New Mexico (17-14, 7-9 Mountain West) in the first round of the NIT on Wednesday night at Williams Arena.

Minnesota reached the second round of the NIT last season and failed to make either tournament in 2000, Monson’s first year as the head coach.

“It wasn’t like we were surprised, but yet we were still disappointed,” Monson said. “We were close and we put ourselves in position, but it’s kind of like our season has gone. We didn’t close it out.”

A month ago, the Gophers had first place in the Big Ten in their sights. A week before Selection Sunday, Minnesota threw away a chance to virtually ice a bid by losing in the last seconds to Illinois.

And when the Gophers had a shot at revenge over the conference co-champion Illini in the second round of the Big Ten tournament on Friday, Minnesota sealed its fate with a 16-point loss.

“It’s not that big of a shock,” said Rychart, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds against the Illini. “We had a slight chance of getting in and we didn’t.”

Memories of their 67-66 setback to Illinois on March 3 appeared to be pushed from the Gophers’ minds after a 24-point win over Penn State earned them a quarterfinal rematch in Indianapolis, but the Illini wasted no time sending Minnesota home with a 92-76 loss.

Illinois shot 62 percent from the field ñ making 13 of 23 three-point attempts ñ and trailed by as many as 24 points in the blow-out.

“We had too much energy,” Minnesota forward Jerry Holman said about the loss. “The game on Sunday just made us more hyped. We knew what we had to do, but we just didn’t execute it.”

While Minnesota missed out a chance to play for the national title, the Gophers hope to make the most of their NIT berth.

“It’s not going to be like the NCAA tournament where you’ll have 20,000 people watching you,” said Rychart, who had 23 points and 17 rebounds in a first-round loss to Gonzaga as a freshman in 1999, the Gophers’ last trip to the tournament.

“You just have to motivate yourself. Me, I want to play a couple more.”

Jabari Ritchie covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]