Maybe, for the Gophers, a NIT title was better than a NCAA loss

Jace Frederick

By now, it's become an age-old question of sorts: Is it better to win the NIT championship or get bounced in your first game of the NCAA Tournament?

My answer in the past was simple, make the NCAAs. Receiving an NCAA Tournament bid is a symbol of a solid season, a benchmark used by many for success, a sign that a team belongs in the upper echelon with the nation's top teams.

"The NCAA tournament, because of [the media] and because of the fans, that is deemed whether your successful or your not," Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said. "And it's not just media, it's everybody. That's the nature of our business, so we understand that." 

But watching the Gophers pose for pictures and cut down the nets on Thursday night caused me to take a moment of pause.

The players were truly joyous, grinning from ear to ear, yelling at one another and snapping selfies with their trophy and watches. In their minds, it didn't matter what tournament it was, they were champions. And maybe that's something greater to build off of. Maybe that can be more beneficial than a first round NCAA exit where players slouch their shoulders as they head onto the bus after a three-day stay at a random neutral location. Look at a team like Colorado, who bowed out after a 29-point loss to Pitt in which the Buffaloes trailed 46-18 at the half — good luck drawing a positive from that.

Minnesota used the NIT for what it should be utilized as — an opportunity to grow.

– Joey King established himself as a legitimate scoring threat for Minnesota, especially developing his mid-range jump shot (three games of 14+ points)

– DeAndre Mathieu continued his path to perfecting his craft of aggressively guiding Minnesota's offensive while remaining in control of the game (13 points, seven assists and just two turnovers in the final vs. SMU).

– Andre Hollins progressed in his recovery from his bum ankle to the point where, by the end, he started to once again look like the Andre Hollins of old (13 points in the semi vs. FSU and 14 in the final vs. SMU en route to an all-tournament team honor).

– Austin Hollins cemented his standing in Gophers lore with a scintillating postseason run, capped by a triple with less than a minute to play to seal the championship for the Gophers.

None of the former would have occured had the Gophers snuck into the NCAA Tournament and lost in the "Second Round," or even worse, in Dayton.

Yes, making the tournament would have been a significant achievement for the program. But a tournament loss to piggyback a 26-point defeat in the Big Ten quarters to Wisconsin wouldn't exactly have generated much offseason momentum.

As it turned out, the Gophers finished their season with five straight wins, four over near NCAA Tournament-quality opponents. Each one of those games, those experiences, will be beneficial for the returning players as they head into the offseason.

"The more pressure type situations, win or go home games, nationally televised games [against] very good opponents, all of those things are very, very useful for them," Pitino said. "The key is, more so not this year, it's next year. If we learn from everything this year and we're safely in the tournament next year, then we learned from this year. It just depends on each year, each team."

An NCAA Tournament appearance is undoubtedly a thrill for any collegiate athlete. But as Pitino noted in the middle of this season, none of his players thought their NCAA Tournament berth a year ago was that campaign's crowning achievement. That distinction belonged to the win over then-No. 1 Indiana on the Gophers home floor.

As for this season? Well, Austin Hollins tweeted this out on Friday when asked what his favorite moment from this season, a season which included a home victory over Wisconsin, was:

"Last night and that championship for sure!"