Men’s hoops faces latest ‘Hoya Destroya’ Sweetney

Anthony Maggio

Ten years and one day ago, National Invitation Tournament Most Valuable Player Voshon Lenard led Minnesota’s men’s basketball team to the NIT title over Georgetown.

Tonight, the Gophers face the Hoyas for only the second time since then at Madison Square Garden in New York City to kick off this season’s NIT semifinals.

Standing in the way of Minnesota’s third appearance in the NIT final game in 10 years is Georgetown center Mike Sweetney.

“I don’t think there’s any question that he’s the best big man we’ve faced all year,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “He’s got the whole package.”

At 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, Sweetney is to college basketball what a Mack Truck is to the highway. Sweetney averages a double-double with 22.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.

Sweetney led his team in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots (3.12 per game) and field goal percentage (54.5 percent) this season. He finished second overall in the Big East in scoring, rebounding and blocks, while ranking third in the conference in field-goal percentage.

“He’s so quick on his feet but such a strong player,” center Jeff Hagen said. “We haven’t seen anyone like him.”

How Minnesota defends Sweetney in the paint will be a key to the contest. The Gophers will likely double, maybe even triple team Sweetney when he gets the ball.

“There’s no way you can go at Sweetney one-on-one for 40 minutes,” guard Maurice Hargrow said. “He’s too talented.”

But Minnesota has reason to believe it will be able to contain Sweetney. On the Gophers’ road to New York City, they have played

better team defense, allowing an average of just 60 points per game during the last three.

And this isn’t the first time Minnesota has had to worry about a dominant opponent.

“The one positive thing is that we’ve had to cheat quite a bit defensively and tried to help on certain players all season,” Monson said. “So that being said, our players are used to doing those things, just not on a player of (Sweetney’s) caliber.”

The Gophers have done those things with a little more gusto this postseason, thanks to the swift kick in the shorts they got from the NCAA tournament selection committee.

After talk all season of Minnesota once again reaching college basketball’s Promised Land, the Gophers took a blow to their ego by losing five straight games to end the season and getting the cold shoulder from selection committee.

But instead of pouting and treating the NIT like it stood for the “nobody’s interested” tournament, Minnesota swallowed its pride and has played like the squad that won seven of eight games before plummeting to a .500 conference record.

“Sometimes you have to learn things the hard way,” Hargrow said. “And that’s what we did.”

Added Hagen: “We decided we wanted to end the season on a high note and getting to New York would definitely make the season a success.

“We got a second chance here and a second life and we just wanted to take advantage of that opportunity.”