Tonight's game vs. Southern Miss tips at 8 p.m. CT and will be broadcast on ESPN and 1500-a.m.
If there is one and only one thing Minnesota coach Richard Pitino should get credit for this season, it's getting the players he has to play hard.
Now, as the Gophers head into their third-round matchup against 3-seed Southern Miss -- the most talented team they've faced in the NIT so far -- that quality matters more than ever.
A victory tonight would send the top-seeded Gophers to New York, and Madison Square Garden, for the NIT semifinals, where they would face either fellow top-seed Florida State or 3-seed Louisiana Tech.
Does Minnesota want that?
All year, we've seen the results of players kicking up their effort a notch under Pitino: Mo Walker (the most extreme example) and Elliott Eliason have notably improved, while DeAndre Mathieu, the JUCO-turned-Big Ten starting point guard, has somehow transformed into the most valuable player on the team.
Now, we're seeing that elevation in play from others. Senior Maverick Ahanmisi is playing as well as he has in his career. And in the last two games, Joey King has gone from under-the-radar to game-changer as Minnesota tries to hold onto its postseason life.
Sure, it's the NIT. The competition is far less stout than it was in the Big Ten slate. We know that. Still, these big performances are impressive simply from the standpoint of such showings reflecting a player's desire to keep competing.
On Sunday, King, who is averaging seven points and 2.7 rebounds on the year, finished with a team-high 18 points and added a pair of steals. The night gave him three consecutive games scoring in double digits, dating back to the Wisconsin game in the second round of the Big Ten tournament -- something he hadn't before done in maroon and gold.
Part of that is matchups, certainly. Not only do High Point and St. Mary's lack the talent Minnesota has, both squads also didn't switch on pick-and-rolls, leaving King open to shoot a little more. To his credit, he took advantage, connecting on four of six three-pointers in the last two games. Stringing together three big nights, especially when Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins have been hot and cold, has been critical for the Gophers' forward momentum.
"I mean, my teammates are getting me open shots and things are dropping," he said. "So it’s going really well. I just want to have a lot of momentum in this next stretch, going into next season."
The Chipper is back
Tonight marks the return of Chip "Chipper" Armelin to the Barn. Armelin transferred to Southern Miss after his sophomore season at Minnesota, and is back on the court after sitting out last year.
For the most part, he's been the same type of player with the Golden Eagles as he was with the Gophers. His stats are up and down and somewhat unreliable, but he's still capable of having a big night off the bench. The 6-4 guard is averaging 4.7 points and 1.9 rebounds in 13.4 minutes a game -- almost identical to his production for Minnesota in 2011-12.
"He's an energy guy off the bench," Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall said. "Some nights he gets you 12 or 14 and other nights he might only get you 2 or 4, but just a guy that really plays with a lot of energy. We have two really good senior guards that he's kind of caught behind, but he's a hard worker, he's a great kid."
Tyndall said the Louisiana native, hasn't acted overly excited for the homecoming, but then, Armelin was never one to do much talking. Judging by his Twitter account, in which he's retweeted a lot of Minnesota fans welcoming him back, he's greatly looking forward to the opportunity.
"He's the type of guy who's mature enough to just approach it like it's any other game and come in and do his job or play his role," Tyndall said.
Care to step back in time and remember Armelin's tenure in maroon and gold? Here are some highlights.
Tyndall will meet his former walk-on, DeAndre Mathieu, again.
My how things have changed since these two last met. Two years ago, Mathieu was in the office of Tyndall, who was at Morehead State at the time, asking for a scholarship. The coach said no. He had his reasons then. But he certainly could not have predicted Mathieu's steep climb since that day. If you haven't already, read my story on Mathieu and Tyndall's past.
I wanted to share some leftover quotes from Tyndall that didn't get into the story.
*On not offering Mathieu a scholarship: "There have been some people I know that have been critical that I didn't offer him a scholarship, but I was the guy that gave him a recruited walk-on position when nobody else did. So I believed in Dre and I thought he had a chance to be a good player. And he certainly did some good things for us as a freshman."
*On Mathieu quitting the team midway through the year, after his best friend passed: "It was a pretty traumatic deal. Between his family and I we talked him out of quitting and coming back to the team but his role was pretty limited. He was a nice, little solid player. I liked Dre but everything he'd been through on a personal level and not being a significant contributor to our team, we just said hey, if you pave your way for one more year, we'll scholarship you for your last two years."
*On what he originally saw in Mathieu: "Obviously, he's an explosive athlete and when he and his mom came to campus to visit with me, the thing that made me want to give Dre a chance is he said he'd be willing to work as hard as he possibly could, that he loved basketball ... He seemed like a great kid from a great family, and so we gave the opportunity to him."
*On what he sees from Mathieu now: "It looks like he's just gotten stronger, which was so important in his development. He's shooting the ball better and playing with a ton of confidence. Which is great -- you've got to give coach Pitino a lot of credit for giving him that freedom and instilling that confidence. I think obviously the year of junior college probably really, really helped him too."