Minnesota has one shot to avoid NIT

Men’s basketball players want desperately to compete in the NCAA tournament instead.

Jack Satzinger

Entering Minnesota’s first-round Big Ten tournament matchup against Rutgers on Wednesday, its 2015 NCAA tournament chances have never looked bleaker.

Going back to the “Big Dance” for the second time since 2010 would require an incredible run of five consecutive victories in as many days against teams Minnesota lost to 12 out of 18 times this season.

Simply put, a third trip to the National Invitational Tournament in four years for Minnesota’s seniors is likely — but it doesn’t look like the Gophers even want to go back there.

As conference play has unfolded sourly, some of Minnesota’s players have already made tentative plans to go home for spring break if there is no postseason to be had.

“I don’t know if you want to be back-to-back NIT champions. I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s good to keep winning, but I don’t know,” senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu said after last week’s 76-63 loss to Wisconsin.

Fellow senior guard Andre Hollins has already been to the NIT twice and seen firsthand that deep runs there don’t necessarily translate to prolonged success down the road. On Sunday, Hollins admitted going back to the NIT wouldn’t be exciting for him. He’s spent the better chunk of two of his past three college springs finishing mediocre seasons at the tournament’s title game.

“It’s different for us seniors. It would be very disappointing,” Hollins said. “If we go there, we’ll just have to make the most of it.”

Before the season started, when Minnesota had high expectations returning almost every key contributor from last year’s NIT championship, head coach Richard Pitino openly talked about the awkwardness associated with winning the consolation tournament.

“The NIT, winning the NIT, it’s just a weird — nobody knows how to handle it. Do you brag about it?” Pitino said at the Big Ten media day in October. “[The players] were certainly very proud of it. But that’s not the goal to be in the NIT. I think everybody in the locker room knows that.”

The Gophers appear optimistic that they can make some noise at the Big Ten tournament this week — their final chance at putting a positive stamp on an unexpectedly poor season.

An 11th place finish in the Big Ten, punctuated by losing at home to Northwestern and Penn State in the same season for the first time in program history, looks bad.

Perhaps, some teams will overlook the Gophers, and they’ll exceed expectations.

“I think all the guys in this locker room are fighters,” redshirt senior center Mo Walker said. “I think we can surprise a lot of people because a lot of people are just overlooking us because of how the season went.”

The ups and downs of the conference season appear to have weighed on the Gophers mentally. Overshadowing bright spots like victories at Iowa and Michigan State are eight losses of six points or fewer that could have gone either way — had Minnesota executed.

While the results may be discouraging for the Gophers, especially in a down year for the Big Ten, Mathieu pointed out one silver lining about entering the tournament. Minnesota proved this season that it is capable of beating any conference opponent aside from top-10 ranked Wisconsin and Maryland.

The next three teams in the Big Ten standings — Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue — all lost to the Gophers this year.

Ohio State, the sixth-place team, needed overtime to defeat them. Seventh-place Indiana blew Minnesota out, but the Hoosiers did so through a record-setting 3-pointers barrage that may have been a fluke.

Aside from the cream of the Big Ten’s crop, Minnesota has a realistic chance at beating any other conference opponent come tournament time.

Whether or not the Gophers can finally put together a consistent run remains to be seen. But one thing seems certain — they don’t want their season ending at the NIT again, and this is their final chance to do something about it.

“The Big Ten is so wide open,” Mathieu said after the Penn State loss. “We were just talking about kind of the draw we could get. … We can make a run.”