After NIT loss to Stanford, Gophers fans eye next season with heightened hope

Minnesota’s NIT run inspired fan confidence that may not have existed two weeks ago.

Gophers fans cheer along with the Minnesota rouser during Tuesday nights NIT semifinal game at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY.

Marisa Wojcik

Gophers fans cheer along with the Minnesota rouser during Tuesday night’s NIT semifinal game at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY.

by Derek Wetmore

NEW YORK — As the water of the Gophers season circled the drain before the last few seconds mercifully ticked off the clock in the team’s NIT championship game, fans got testy.

There were jeers directed at head coach Tubby Smith from the opposite sideline. There was also at least one staunch defender who stood up for the coach from a spot behind the bench, cursing out the cat caller while giving a one-finger salute.

As the final few minutes expired on the Gophers’ 24-point loss to Stanford, it was tough to recall the team was riding its highest high just two days before. Before Thursday’s collapse, it had played four quality games against bad teams that boosted the Gophers’ confidence.

But that’s the best lens to look through to understand that team’s postseason run, Gophers fans in attendance said Thursday.

Twin brothers Nick and Ben Anderson from Delaware grew up attending Gophers games. They went Thursday to witness the championship blowout loss but said they were happy overall with the team’s NIT run.

“We had lowered expectations going into the Big Ten tournament,” Nick Anderson said of the team’s rough finish in the regular season. Minnesota lost six of its final seven games entering the conference tournament.

He said he was disappointed with Thursday’s showing, but the end result of the tournament isn’t as important as the development along the way.

Getting extra postseason games “helps people grow up,” Anderson said. “There’s a maturity there that you can see, and I think that leads to excitement.”

“It’s never exciting to get blown out, but you’ve got to be proud of them getting this far,”  Ben Anderson said.

Pete Rathen, a University of Minnesota alumnus who lives in New York, said the tournament had fringe benefits for the Gophers.

“The NIT is about intensity. It’s about coming out to New York, having fun, getting the freshmen to play,” Rathen said. “And they accomplished all that.”

There were many positives born of the team’s NIT run, Smith said in a press conference Wednesday leading up to the championship, even if they were hard to recall following the drubbing.

“The blowout hurts the brand, but it got some exposure this week,” Rathen said.

The championship game was sparsely attended, in part because of the lack of prestige of the tournament and the location of the schools competing in the final four. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst was the only team with regional ties, and Stanford eliminated it in Tuesday’s semifinals.

But the championship game was televised nationally on ESPN, which helpsed get the school’s name out beyond the stretches of its own market.

Minnesota alumna Steph Opitz said it was fun to see the Gophers play in person, regardless of the size of the stage. She lives in New York and traveled to Madison Square Garden to root on her alma mater.

Several things surfaced during the tournament that have Gophers fans excited for next season:

Rodney Williams emerged as a consistent scoring threat, though he fell silent in the second half Tuesday and struggled with mental lapses in the championship.

If he returns for his senior season, which is likely, he’ll provide the team with an experienced scoring option in the frontcourt.

Andre Hollins had his worst game on the season’s biggest stage. He had four points, five turnovers and no assists in the championship. But his emergence as a crunch-time scoring option and team leader were critical for Minnesota as it marched through the NIT.

He made strides toward answering the team’s point guard questions for next season after struggling with his transition from shooting guard in the regular season.

On March 23, the team confirmed the NCAA had granted star forward Trevor Mbakwe a sixth year.

It is unclear if he will return, but he’s said he’s leaning toward delaying his NBA dream for one more season with the team.

If he returns and the team can resolve how to allocate its scholarships, he would immediately become the best scoring and rebounding option on a team full of returners.

The only player that will definitely not be a part of the equation next year is senior Ralph Sampson III.

Arizona State University’s leading scorer Trent Lockett has asked his school for a release from his scholarship so he can play closer to home. He is from Golden Valley, Minn. He said in a statement he’d like to focus his energy on being close to his mother while she battles cancer.

Lockett could still decide to return to ASU, but Gophers fans are eying his decision eagerly.

Should Lockett choose to play for the Gophers, it would add another scholarship decision. With only Sampson leaving and two freshman recruits joining the team, Minnesota would be over the allotted scholarship limit of 13.

Smith said discussions with the NCAA over how to handle a potential scholarship overload haven’t yet taken place. It is possible it will allow the team to keep its 13 scholarship players and maintain Mbakwe’s scholarship, but the most likely scenario involves at least one player transferring out.

Smith’s future

President Eric Kaler, who attended the championship game at Madison Square Garden with retiring athletics director Joel Maturi, had tabled all contract-extension discussions for Smith until a new athletics director is hired to replace Maturi.

The search committee tasked with finding replacement candidates hopes to have finalists named by late April, and Kaler has said he’d like to name the new AD by early May.

Smith’s agent, Ricky Lefft, said Friday he expects discussions with the University about an extension to resume soon, according to the Associated Press.