NEW YORK - About a year and a half ago, Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith was in Memphis scouting now-freshman Andre Hollins, when he noticed a familiar face -- and one he'll see a lot Thursday -- in the stands with him.
It was Johnny Dawkins, the coach at Stanford, the team the Gophers face in the NIT final tonight. Both coaches were aggressively pursuing the guard.
"I remember seeing [Dawkins] in Memphis at a few games, and I had to throw him under the bus," Smith said with a chuckle.
He's kidding, but the value he placed on Hollins then and now is not a joke.
What would the matchup be like if the freshman was on the other side? Well, the Gophers most likely would not be here. And Smith might not be sitting so comfortably in his job, without having found a dynamic playmaker and scorer who has helped lead the team to its most victories (23) in any season since that vacated Final Four run 15 years ago.
With Hollins at the helm, the Gophers have become a different team in the postseason. He has become a leader with his voice and his play, giving fans optimism for what's to come even if his teammates think the future is now.
"We think of him as a sophomore now," said guard Austin Hollins, who actually is a sophomore. "He's really grown over the course of the season, and he's starting to figure it all out. You know, it's hard to be a freshman point guard, especially in the Big Ten. So his confidence is just growing, and he's starting to figure it all out."
As he is, so is the rest of the team, underscoring the importance of a solid anchor at that position. Last season, when point guard Al Nolen went down because of a broken foot, the team quickly collapsed. This year, while junior guard Julian Welch and Hollins both struggled because of injuries -- and Hollins still was adjusting to the college game -- the Gophers' offense stalled.
"You show me a team that's still playing, and I'll show you a team that's ... got a point guard who can run the team, who can play both ends of the court," Smith said.
It takes a special player to do that, to inhale the style and the values of a coach while transitioning to the college game. It means learning on the fly, with each situation affecting real-time game results.
"That's the key -- can you take criticism?" Smith said. "He's got to be able to understand and appreciate what we're trying to convey to him, and it takes a while."
Having an inexperienced point guard might have hurt the Gophers in the relentless Big Ten, but it might well be making Smith far more popular with Gophers fans now. Even if the NIT is viewed as a consolation prize for a year that didn't meet expectations, Minnesota is making the most of its second chance. It is also worth noting that the Gophers made the NCAA field in 1994 and 1999, the years following their previous NIT championships.
Hollins has been a major player in the Gophers' four NIT wins, the only postseason victories Smith has had in his five years at Minnesota. He has 71 points in the tournament, including 44 in his past two. Hollins' free throws down the stretch sparked a victory over Middle Tennessee State that landed the Gophers a spot in the semifinals, and his Madison Square Garden debut included five points in overtime to help Minnesota fend off Washington in overtime Tuesday.
With the team rolling now, Smith can comfortably hand the reins to Hollins. Some of the hardest lessons -- absorbing the basics and getting players to buy into a methodology -- have been learned. Now Hollins, the team's natural leader, can take over in some of those situations.
"Once the coach steps back and the student takes over, that's what we're seeing now," Smith said. "All the hard work ... this is the culmination of all those things."
Along with it, Hollins is becoming a fan favorite. On Wednesday, he tweeted that he needed "only 50 more" followers until he reached 3,000 on Twitter. A few hours later, he had surpassed 3,200.
And to think none of this might have happened at Minnesota. Stanford's own freshman point guard star, Chasson Randle, played a significant role in the decision by Hollins -- who scored a 28 on his ACT and graduated with a 4.8 GPA from White Station High School in Memphis -- to play for the Gophers.
With Stanford having only one scholarship available, Randle committed first. He's been stellar for the Cardinal all season, averaging 13.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists a game.
Still, Dawkins remembers those recruiting days in Memphis gyms, and he's not surprised to see Hollins maturing.
"I saw what we're all seeing now -- a terrific young player, very intelligent, excellent shooter and an amazing competitor," Dawkins said. "He wants to get after you; he wants to win. I think he holds his will on the game."