Minnesota heads back to the Garden

The last time the Gophers were there, they won the National Invitation Tournament.

Jack Satzinger

Minnesota will play St. John’s on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, which is arguably the most storied arena in basketball history.

But for the Gophers, primetime matchups in New York City are nothing new. Some of Minnesota’s players, like seniors Andre Hollins and Kendal Shell, have played at the facility — once during the 2012 National Invitation Tournament and again for the 2014 NIT.

Shell said the team’s upperclassmen have a certain comfort level with playing at the facility for a third time.

“I know the first time we went there, everybody was pretty nervous about it. I mean, just a big arena,” Shell said. “Just going back there now, we’re a little more comfortable. We’re used to it.”

The same can’t be said for some of Minnesota’s youngsters, who haven’t shown as much confidence this season. Head coach Richard Pitino said freshman forward Josh Martin looks nervous on the court.

Freshman center Bakary Konate has been prone to fouling. But the team’s third freshman, guard Nate Mason, flashed a knack for playing on the big stage in the team’s season opener against Louisville.

“Madison Square Garden is another venue where the lights are shining bright, so we’ll see how they respond,” Pitino said. “I know our guys are excited about going back.”

Mason has been crucial for Minnesota’s backcourt depth this season. He is tied for third on the team in points per game with 10.8, and he is the Gophers’ leading rebounder with 19 boards in four games.

“[Mason is] very poised. I think he’s ready,” Hollins said.

Minnesota boasts one of the best starting backcourts in the Big Ten with Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu. But they’ll face a stiff test Wednesday.

Two St. John’s guards — D’Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan — have combined for more than 35 points per game this season.

“D’Angelo Harrison is one of the best shooters in the country, and Rysheed Jordan is a great guard,” Pitino said. “It’s going to be a very, very tough matchup for us.”

One area where Minnesota may have an advantage, though, is depth.

Mason has been one of the team’s bright spots this season, and Pitino said St. John’s doesn’t have much experience outside of its starting five.

“I think their starting five is as good as Louisville’s,” Pitino said. “Certainly, they have a little bit of depth issues.”

St. John’s played Franklin Pierce before the Gophers did last week and only won by 13 points. Minnesota dismantled the Ravens, winning by 52.

But Pitino said he isn’t taking much stock in those games, because Franklin Pierce got hot from behind the 3-point line against St. John’s.

Depending on what happens Wednesday, Minnesota will face either No. 10 Gonzaga or Georgia on Friday.

“I know a little bit about Gonzaga, just because nationally there’s a little more hype than Georgia,” Pitino said. “Georgia I know is a well-coached team from me being in the SEC, but I don’t know a whole lot about them, to be honest.”