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Gophers pregame: Does Minnesota have the hunger to advance in the NIT?

  • Blog Post by: Amelia Rayno
  • March 18, 2014 - 4:06 PM

Before the start of Richard Pitino's first season as a head coach --last year at Florida International -- he hired Mike Balado as an assistant. 

But Balado didn't entirely move on mentally from his previous job at High Point.

"He kept talking about this kid John Brown," Pitino said with a laugh. Balado had recruited the 6-8 center, who was heading into his freshman year at the time.

"He was pumping him up, pumping him up," Pitino said. "We always jokingly had an interest in John Brown because he'd always brag about him."

Now, Pitino will finally be able to judge whether Balado's gushing was justified. Top-seeded Minnesota will face 8-seed High Point in the first round of the NIT at Williams Arena tonight. Brown is now a sophomore, and the Player of the Year in the Big South, which the Panthers won outright.

On paper, High Point shouldn't be a challenge for the Gophers, who were still positioned on the NCAA bubble a few short weeks ago. 

The Panthers' defensive efficiency is ranked 305th in the nation, according to kenpom.com, which should give the Gophers plenty of chances to rebound from their weak offensive performance in the second-round of the Big Ten tournament -- a loss which probably knocked them out of the Big Dance. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins were a big part of the problem in that one, going just 3-for-20 from the field. The Panthers also do not handle the ball especially well, or get to the free throw line often. 

Yes, matchup-wise, the Gophers should roll.

But historically, those things matter little in the NIT. The consolation tournament isn't about who matches up with who; who has home-court advantage; who had the better season; who played the better schedule.

It's about who wants to be there. 

There is no doubt that High Point does. This marks the very first NIT tournament for the Panthers, who transitioned to Division I in 1999-2000. They are going to be pumped.

Tonight, we'll get our first glimpse of whether Minnesota can match that energy.

"For High Point, this is a big deal for them," Pitino said. "We've got to understand that and we've got to be ready to play."

Minnesota lost four games by four points or fewer in the Big Ten slate and had the chance to play itself into the tournament in the final two weeks of the season. A win at Michigan at the beginning of March or vs. Wisconsin in the second round of the Big Ten tournament likely would have done it.

"We had a lot of opportunities to take matters into our own hands and we didn't do it," Pitino said. 

Two years ago, the Gophers steamrolled three opponents in the NIT to advance to the final four teams in New York. But that was a different situation. Minnesota was a 6-seed, then, and not so near to the NCAA bubble. The Gophers also played all of their games on the road, and there is an argument for that actually being beneficial. Away from home, it felt like Minnesota was headed into adversity, touring tiny schools who packed their gyms and, in some cases, truly celebrated an NIT berth.

None of that is the case this season. 

As long as the Gophers continue to win, they will play their home games at Williams Arena, which figures to have just a fraction of the fans that typically attend.

The vibe will not be the same as it has been all year. If Minnesota plays down to competition the way have at many points this season; if the Gophers allow their intensity to drop off as it has in games with lower energy (at Penn State; vs. Northwestern), they could get into trouble.

Pitino doesn't believe his team has a "sense of entitlement," but Brown and the Panthers will hope to take advantage of any NCAA tournament hangover that might linger.

The center has been a huge part of the Panthers' renewed success in their conference this season. He uses 29.7 percent of the team's possessions and still maintains an offensive rating ranked 191st in the nation. He doesn't turn over the ball and he can shoot and rebound decently well, too.

Again, none of this should be overstated -- if the Gophers take care of business they should plow past High Point in convincing fashion.

As long as they want to be here.

A few other notes:

*Pitino acknowledged that there is always a temptation to look back at the schedule and say 'What if' when a team falls just short of the field. But the only games he was truly disappointed with the team's performance, he said, were the losses agaisnt Northwestern, Illinois and vs. Wisconsin at the Big Ten tournament. "Last year I was a basket away, too," he said, referencing FIU's loss in the conference championship game. "So you always do that -- everyone is going to say, 'Oh, what if Mo made the layup against Northwestern.' That's the obvious one that everyone is going to say. But that doesn't mean, who says we beat Ohio State at home or Wisconsin."

*Pitino and Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan appeared to have some sharp words for each other at the end of the second-round Big Ten tournament game in Indianapolis on Friday, following a three-pointer by Jordan Hill with 17 seconds to go in a game in which the Badgers were already leading by 20-plus. Pitino declined to comment on the exchange after the game. "Honestly, looking back on it -- I've got a lot of respect for him," Pitino said on Sunday. "The biggest thing more than anything is there are different philosophies to doing things, and I think he's a great coach. I've got a lot of respect for him. I probably, if I wasn't down 25 would been a lot happier. So the answer more than anything is play better basketball and I won't be frustrated. So that's it more than anything. There is no bad blood with me and coach Ryan. I think he's a tremendous coach, he does it the right way, coaches the right way, and I have a lot of respect for him."

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