Questions of pride only ones left for men’s hoops in NIT

by Brian Hall

On Tuesday afternoon, with the anxiety of an unknown postseason fate gone and the frustration of Sunday’s selection snub behind it, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team focused on the task at hand, the National Invitational Tournament and first-round opponent New Mexico.

The work begins Wednesday at Williams Arena as Minnesota (17-12, 9-7 Big Ten) hosts the Lobos.

The missed chance at an NCAA bid and a 3-5 end to the season are now in the past, and the Gophers must regroup quickly to generate whatever postseason noise they can.

“The NCAA tournament is now in the future for those of us that will still be here,” sophomore Michael Bauer said. “It is no longer something that is achievable this season. The focus now is on New York (the site of the NIT final four), but we have work to do to get there.”

The Gophers, disappointed with their second straight NIT appearance, could have easily slipped into cruise control mode. But Minnesota still has something left to prove.

“We don’t want to go in and lose, especially the first game,” senior Dusty Rychart said. “If we do that the NCAA can say they were right in keeping us out.”

New Mexico (16-13, 6-8 Mountain West) is making its third straight NIT appearance. This year, the Lobos were sixth in their conference and lost a double overtime game, 120-117, to UNLV in the Mountain West tournament.

New Mexico starts three guards, led by junior Ruben Douglas. Douglas led his conference in scoring, averaging 18.1 points per game after becoming a midseason addition to the squad.

Douglas transferred to Albuquerque after starting at Arizona as a freshman.

“On defense, the onus is on our guards to handle their small lineup,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “On offense the onus is on our big guys to score when we have mismatches.”

After returning four starters from last year’s NIT team, New Mexico had its sights set on the NCAA tournament, but second-leading scorer Marlon Parmer left the team following its loss to Utah on Jan. 21 and seven-foot center Moustapha Diagne was limited due to a foot ailment.

“We are still a relatively young team,” Lobo’s coach Fran Fraschilla said. “We played in a very balanced conference and were very competitive, but we struggled down the stretch on the road.”

New Mexico played six of its last eight games on the road, losing all six. Overall, New Mexico was 2-8 on the road this season.

While the advantage seems clearly in the Gophers’ favor, each coach is looking forward to the matchup.

“It’s kind of exciting,” Fraschilla said. “You get tired of beating up on teams in your own conference. It’s fun to get out and play a team you’re not used to and you don’t really know.”

With little time to prepare for the Lobos, Monson knows one of the toughest aspects to playing in the NIT will be the Gophers frame of mind.

He said the team has bounced back well after Sunday and the scene was apparent at Monday’s pre-practice shoot-around as the players were laughing and joking amongst themselves.

“It is good that things began light-hearted,” Bauer said. “It meant that everybody wasn’t down after Sunday.

“But, it got more serious as practice continued and that’s good because we have more work to do.”

And so, with Minnesota somewhere it never wanted to be, the Gophers now look to make the best of a bad situation.

“The NIT is about character,” Monson said. “Hopefully we will show some of that. (Wednesday) will be a mental test, as every game in March is.”

Brian Hall covers men’s basketball and
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