We all know the deal.
In a time of year when the NCAA tournament takes over Twitter, televisions and conversations, everyone is thinking about it.
Including the University of Minnesota basketball team.
Just because the Gophers aren't in the Big Dance doesn't mean the players don't care. They've got rooting interests, friends at other schools, programs they grew up watching. It's March Madness -- heaven for ballers (and those of us who just like to watch a lot of hoops).
Despite the distractions, the Gophers have shown a focus for their current situation as well. Minnesota has notched a win over High Point in the opening round of the NIT, and then topped St. Mary's last night, overcoming a 14-0 start by the Gaels, a stretch when the Gophers had six turnovers.
"I understand the NIT is tough for everybody because they ultimate goal is to make the NCAA Tournament," coach Richard Pitino said. "But I just thought these guys, you could tell they really want to keep playing. I’m appreciative of the fans, I thought they were great [Sunday]. And we’re excited for Tuesday night."
Top-seeded Minnesota will play 3-seed Southern Miss -- and former Gopher Chip Armelin -- at Williams Arena on Tuesday at 8 p.m. CT. The Golden Eagles are coached by Donnie Tyndall, who they hired from Morehead State, the program Gophers point guard DeAndre Mathieu walked onto as a freshman and never received a scholarship from.
If the Gophers win, they will advance to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Now, Pitino is just trying to keep the momentum.
Before Sunday's, he wrote a list of reasons his team should want to keep playing despite being, you know, in that other tournament.
He reminded his player that they are competitors. Told them they should appreciate the opportunity to continue to play. To get better. That they should want to send the seniors off the Williams Arena court with a win, not a loss. That they should be excited to go to New York and Madison Square Garden, "the Mecca of college basketball" and a place where their coach has roots.
"More than anything," Pitino asked them, "Do you love the game or not? And the good thing for these guys is that they do love the game, and it’s fun to coach that."
A few other notes from last night (all quotes are from our freelance writer, Bryce Evans -- cap tip):
*Malik Smith didn't play at all in Sunday's 63-55 win, but Maverick Ahanmisi, who had scored a combined 34 points in his previous two home games, played 24 minutes. Smith went 2-for-31 from the field in his previous nine games. "Mav’s playing well, and I think it’s obvious: Mav’s playing really well and he’s giving us a lot," Pitino said. The senior guard finished with seven points, two assists, one turnover and two steals.
*Pitino kept Mathieu (14 points, one assist, five turnovers) in with two fouls in the first half. The point guard picked up his second with 7:13 to go, but Andre Hollins (five points, one assist, two turnovers) had already picked up his second as well. Pitino has said multiple times that he doesn't want to play Ahanmisi, who has struggled with ball handling, to play the point. "I had to make a decision," he said. "I didn’t know where to turn with those two guys in foul trouble, and just rolled the dice."
*Mathieu has attempted only 40 three-pointers this year but three of them came on Sunday. He made two of them. "He was confident in the huddle that they were going under his ball screens," Pitino said. "He said in a time out, he said, ‘Give me the ball. I’m confident I’m going to make it.’ You know, he’s not a bad shooter. He’s not a great shooter, but when he’s got time, I’m pretty confident he’s going to make it." Mathieu, of course, is more of a driver, and he's very effective in that role, getting to the basket with relative ease and finishing shots that don't seem possible sometimes. But despite that three-pointers aren't a big part of his game, he's maintained a strong 47.5 percent average from that range.
*St. Mary's starting frontcourt finished with just six points and six rebounds between 6-4 power forward Garrett Jackson and 6-9 center Brad Waldow. "It was Elliott Eliason," Pitino said. "He was huge. The kid Waldow for them only played 19 minutes. He’s a really good player. We did a great job on him ... What I loved to see was that [Eliason] wasn’t playing great, Mav wasn’t playing great, and now they’re playing really well. It’s good to see them step up and make big plays." Eliason finished with two points, eight rebounds and seven blocks.