When Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino came to practice on Selection Sunday, he had a message for his players:
They probably wouldn’t be celebrating later when the NCAA announced its 68-team tournament field.
Following Friday’s loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers remained on the wrong side of the cut line in most projected brackets, and Pitino wanted to manage expectations.
Afterward, players had a meeting of their own.
“We just said whatever we’re in, we want to take advantage of it and try to win it,” senior Austin Hollins said.
As most expected, that will be the NIT. The Gophers, who received a No. 1 seed in the NIT for the first time, opening the consolation tournament against No. 8 seed High Point at Williams Arena on Tuesday.
When the initial disappointment wore off, the team moved on.
“I don’t think they’re the type of guys that have this sense of entitlement like they’re not going to be excited about playing,” Pitino said. “Nobody moped around.”
Heading into Sunday, Pitino said he thought his team had about a 40 percent chance of sneaking into the NCAA field. The Gophers finished the year with a strength of schedule ranked ninth in the nation and an RPI in the top 50.
That wasn’t enough for the NCAA tournament selection committee, which chose bubble teams Iowa and North Carolina State — each of which had a worse RPI and strength of schedule numbers than the Gophers.
The result might change how the program schedules in the future.
“We played a top- schedule in the country, so maybe we don’t need to do that,” Pitino said. “Be a little bit smarter — there’s something to be said for that too, moving forward.”
Pitino also lamented the team’s quality victories, many of which lost their luster over time. Florida State was once a top-50 win. So was Iowa. But neither one was on Selection Sunday.
Still, Gophers coaches and players believe there is something to be gained from what lies ahead.
There are numerous examples of teams performing well in the NIT and then building on that success in the following seasons.
Undefeated and NCAA tournament No. 1 seed Wichita State won the NIT in 2011 and has been in the Big Dance every year since, last year advancing all the way to the Final Four. A year ago, Virginia was a top seed in the NIT; this season, the Cavaliers won the ACC regular-season and postseason titles and received an NCAA No. 1 seed as well.
In the NIT two years ago, the Gophers played all their games away from home, but they made it all the way to the title game in New York’s Madison Square Garden before getting run over by Stanford. One year later, they won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1997, although it wasn’t enough for Tubby Smith to keep his job as coach.
Monday, Pitino made it clear that he would not be experimenting for the sake of it in the coming weeks — “Like, I’m going to go win this tournament,” he said, an edge to his voice.
“We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves,” forward Joey King said. “We have a great opportunity with this NIT tournament to continue to build and get better. I think we’re going to go there and really try and win it.”
At the same time, Pitino realizes this is not the goal. He understands fans want the team to compete for an NCAA tournament every year. Monday, he recognized that beyond the team’s initial disappointment, the fans and the area are perhaps “a little hung over” from the letdown.
“I want to get to the point where we’re not on the bubble,” Pitino said. “We want to build a program where we’re fighting for a good seed, not a bubble. We understand that’s difficult, we understand that’s going to take time.”