Gophers' NIT run gets chatter going once again

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2012 - 12:38 AM

Three road victories have gotten the U to New York City and are generating talk about their improvement.

The Gophers' Rodney Williams (shown scoring 21 points against Miami in the NIT) has scored at least 20 points in each of his past four games.

Photo: J Pat Carter, Associated Press

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Kevin Lynch, a former Gophers player and current FSN Sports commentator, jokes that he likes to hear the sound of his own voice. And frankly, with his wide-ranging basketball perspective, he hears it often: at work, around town and at the gym.

So when he's warming up for a pickup game, he's learned to have answers ready for the Timberwolves questions he inevitably gets.

But in the past couple of weeks, he's had to switch gears. Intrigued sports fans, he says, want to chat about a different local basketball team: the Gophers men's squad. After rattling off three consecutive road victories and earning a trip to the NIT final four and Madison Square Garden in New York City, the local interest in the Gophers has heated up along with the team's play.

"I think there is a bit more buzz around this team because they're still playing," Lynch said. "People want to know, 'Did you watch the game last night?' And 'What do you think of Rodney Williams?' Hey, let's face it. I think it's significant what they're doing."

The Gophers have given fans a reason to be optimistic about the future -- and made them care about the NIT even with March Madness in full swing What they're doing contradicts what they've done for much of the season. In the past six games -- stretching back to the last game of the regular season against Nebraska and including the Big Ten tournament -- the Gophers have been playing with an energy rarely seen during the rest of the year. They've made every game into a track meet. They've won tight games. They've refused to back down from opponents' adjustments.

"To me, they're not necessarily a new team, but they're just playing different," said former Gopher Quincy Lewis, who still has strong ties to the school. "Tubby finally shortened his bench, where he's not playing 10, he's only playing seven. He's depending on more guys to go up and do some things. The first time you make a mistake, you're not necessarily coming out, the second time you make a mistake you're not necessarily coming out. He's letting guys play through it, and I think you see them coming together and playing."

Perhaps the most important factors to that success have been the emergence of freshman Andre Hollins as a legitimate scorer and leader, and Rodney Williams' impressive breakout -- achieving statistical heights not reached by any Gophers player in years with his four-game streak of scoring at least 20 points.

Together, the pair has changed the look of the team, and their personal success has seemed to pull out the best in other players as well.

"We've got a lot of tough, young guys that have been growing up real fast for us," Williams said after Wednesday's victory over Middle Tennessee State. "I think it's a blessing for us to get to New York and get a chance to play in the Garden."

Lynch said there is great value for a young, growing team to be able to extend its season just as players appear to be hitting their stride.

"The carry-over effect, how you finish a season can effect what happens at the beginning of the next season," he said. "And I just think this is huge. ... Every extra game that they play, every player on that team has an opportunity to break out."

  • NIT SEMIFINALS TUESDAY • NEW YORK CITY

    • Gophers vs. Washington, 8 p.m. Tuesday • TV: ESPN2 (1500-AM)

    • Stanford vs. Massachusetts , 6 p.m. Tuesday • TV: ESPN2

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