Gophers vs. SMU in the NIT championship: 5 things to watch for

by Jace Frederick

New York — This is it, the end of the line.

The Gophers season will come to an end tonight, the only question remaining is, how?

Will it be with first year head coach Richard Pitino and his players jubilantly hoisting the NIT championship trophy? Or will they dejectedly walk off the court under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, having fallen just short.

Either way, the Gophers elongated postseason run will have generated memories for the seniors and momentum for next year's returners, but a win on Thursday will make those memories a little sweeter and that momentum a little stronger.

Here are five things to watch for:

Andre Hollins: Hollins is finally getting that bounce back in his step, that confidence to not only stand in the corner and wait for an open triple try, but to attack the rim to get easy looks or draw fouls. 

Tuesday night Hollins scored 13 points while truly being a difference maker on the offensive end. It was the type of production the Gophers have expected and needed all season from their leading scorer, but lacked since Hollins sprained his ankle back in Wisconsin.

It sounds, and looks, like Hollins is turning a corner in his recovery from that ankle injury. If that's the case, Hollins, who's known for playing so well in the postseason, could deliver another memorable performance on Thursday night to help carry the Gophers to the NIT title.

Foul Trouble: Pitino was impressed with the way his team played under the circumstances on Tuesday night. Charles Buggs and the injured Oto Osenieks were thrust into the center spot on multiple occassions as Mo Walker and Joey King sat out for large chunks of the action with foul trouble.

Osenieks especially played well, as the Gophers were +20 for the 32 minutes he was on the court, a remarkable performance.

But the Gophers can't expect that type of performance again on Thursday. Pitino said Osenieks was hobbling after Tuesday's game, so I can't think he'll be as effective on Thursday night — he certainly won't be as fresh. 

So King and Walker need to make an effort to be smart and stay out of foul trouble, so they can contribute on the interior for Minnesota. If they don't, it's unlikely the Gophers will come up aces once again.

The Seniors: This will be the collegiate swan song for seniors Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Malik Smith. We've seen Hollins and Ahanmisi step up immensely during this NIT run, and both would like to cap it off in successful fashion. Smith on the other hand have struggled mightily down the stretch, and his two missed free throws at the end of regulation on Tuesday almost cost Minnesota the game. You know Smith would love nothing more than to bust out of his slump in his final game in maroon and gold under the lights of the Garden, and I have a feeling he might do just that.

Nic Moore vs. DeAndre Mathieu: If you want a great point guard matchup, look no further than tonight's game. By now Gophers fans know all about DeAndre Mathieu, the Mighty Mouse-sized junior college point guard who's carried the Gophers on his back to this point in the season.

But Nic Moore is something in himself. SMU's sophomore floor general is averaging 13.5 points and 4.8 assists per game this season. He's been in double-figures in each of the Mustangs last three games and strokes the triple at a cool 44 percent clip.

The winner of battle between those two could go a long way in determining a victor on Thursday.

Larry Brown vs. Richard Pitino: Hall of Famer vs. Son of a Hall of Famer. It should be fun to watch. I'd advise you to take a little time away from the game tonight to stare at the sidelines and watch Brown and Pitino to witness some of their similarities and differences in mannerisms and styles. Can Pitino outcoach the only man to ever win NCAA and NBA championships? It will be fun to watch him try. prediction: SMU 69, Gophers 65 (Minnesota has a 37 percent chance of victory)