Gophers take new life into NIT game tonight

Tim Klobuchar

One week ago it would have been hard to predict what the Gophers men’s basketball team now has: the luxury of worrying about how many home games it has left, and warm, fuzzy stories about its point guard hoping for an appearance in his distant home town, and a local hero seeking redemption.
Coach Clem Haskins has reiterated approximately 134 times that he still wouldn’t vote for the Big Ten tournament, even though he knows that without it, he wouldn’t be talking about tonight’s first-round NIT game with Colorado State at Williams Arena or the extra benefits that could spring from it.
The eighth-seeded Gophers (15-15) needed an upset over top-seeded Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the inaugural Big Ten tourney to ensure a .500 record and an NIT berth.
“Last week in Chicago, we were really behind the eight-ball,” Haskins said. “We needed two wins to get to .500. I know for a fact that a few people didn’t take enough clothes for more than one day. We surprised some people.”
The ideal situation for the Gophers would have them packing for New York in a few weeks. The NIT Final Four is at Madison Square Garden, a subway ride away from senior Eric Harris’ home in the Bronx.
Harris’ homecoming was a priority in the Preseason NIT, which also had its final four at the Garden. But the Gophers failed early in that mission, losing a home game to Utah State in the first round.
“It would really be icing on the cake to get Eric back to New York,” Haskins said.
While Harris’ opportunity for a good showing in front of the home crowd wouldn’t come to fruition for a few weeks, fellow senior Sam Jacobson has his chance tonight. The Cottage Grove, Minn., native suffered through a 3-for-16 shooting night on Senior Day against Northwestern on Feb. 28. At the time, that looked like the last Barn hurrah for the school’s sixth all-time leading scorer, who said he had trouble concentrating because of the emotion of the supposed finale.
Jacobson has a second chance to produce fonder memories of his final home game — and possibly a third or fourth if the Gophers keep winning.
If Minnesota wins tonight, it will play on Monday or Tuesday against the winner of tonight’s game between Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri. The site of the second-round game will be determined by the NIT after the games tonight.
Factors that weigh in that decision are not only the strength of the teams (Missouri, from the Big 12 conference, is 17-14; UAB, from Conference USA, is 20-11), but also the potential for attendance revenue and TV ratings.
Jack Powers, executive director of the NIT, said ESPN is interested in televising a Minnesota-Missouri match-up. The network’s interest in the second-tier tournament is influential.
“It’s a committee decision, with ESPN having some input,” Powers said. “We get together on a conference call while the games are going on and then decide what would be a good television site. That’s one of the criteria.”
Powers said he didn’t know who would be the favorite to host in a Gophers-Missouri game.
Of course, before they even worry about where their next game would be, the Gophers have to first make sure that there is one. Although Colorado State, which finished fourth in the WAC’s Mountain Division, limped home after an 18-3 start, the Rams are still formidable.
“They’re big and strong, they’ve lost a few tough games and they beat Utah State,” Haskins said.
Gophers note: Forward Sam Jacobson was named honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press on Tuesday for the second straight year. Five other Big Ten players were also named honorable mention: Purdue’s Chad Austin and Brad Miller, Michigan’s Louis Bullock and Robert Traylor, and Northwestern’s Evan Eschmeyer. Mateen Cleaves of Michigan State was named to the second team.
The men’s athletics department announced that any student at any school — college, high school, and so on — can buy a ticket for tonight’s game for $8.50 with a valid student ID. Those tickets go on sale at 9 a.m. today.