NEW YORK - By the time flames are dancing, everyone has taken notice. A fire is hard to miss.
But it takes real focus to see the spark before the blaze, the quiet kindling that starts the glow. There are no leaping flames yet for the Gophers men's basketball team. After falling 75-51 to Stanford in the NIT championship game Thursday, the most recent segment of this year's journey ended in disappointment.
The spark, though, is there. Following their often- disappointing regular season, the Gophers regrouped and won six of seven games leading into the NIT final, in that frame exorcising several demons that had plagued them all season. Reaching the final highlighted how far the Gophers have come, but the loss underscored that there is work to be done if the Gophers are going to turn the spark into a fire that sends them dancing in the 2013 NCAA tournament.
"A lot of guys stepped up, and we have them all coming back," coach Tubby Smith said. "That's the best thing about it."
Here is a look back at this season and what lies ahead:
THREE THINGS THAT DEFINED THIS SEASON
1 Trevor Mbakwe going down
Coming into the season, Trevor Mbakwe was the Gophers' focal point. When the forward tore his anterior cruciate ligament in November, only seven games into the season, it altered expectations -- many assumed the Gophers would crumble -- and transformed the way the team played. But it also gave young players forced on-the-job development that made them better in the long run.
2 Close games, blown leads and mental lapses
The Gophers had a penchant for playing close games, win or lose. Often, that seemed due to lapses in decision-making and execution -- padding a lead only to wash it away with a poorly played stretch. They typically escaped with victories in nonconference play, but in the Big Ten the Gophers often played well enough to win but hurt themselves just enough to lose.
3 Scrappiness and heart
The Gophers did not immediately collapse after Mbakwe went down, and at least stayed competitive during much of the Big Ten season. But the biggest step was the Gophers' catalyzing run in March, which included a Big Ten tournament victory over Northwestern, three road victories in the NIT and a berth in the title game at Madison Square Garden. During that closing stretch, the Gophers often showed the poise many had been waiting to see.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1 A talented young point guard and a late-season lineup with no seniors
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Gophers' end-of-season run -- done entirely without senior center Ralph Sampson III, who missed the last seven games because of a sprained knee -- was that fans got a taste of what next year's core will look like. Point guard Andre Hollins broke out in the postseason, proving capable of leading the team. And he was only a freshman.
2 Rodney Williams made major strides
He averaged 18 points in his final eight games this season -- which is what fans have been waiting to see. Williams has always shown raw talent and promise, but he was previously never able to put it all together on a regular basis. When the junior forward started playing well, the entire team followed him. That could carry over to his senior year.
3 An efficient, up-tempo brand of basketball
At times this season, the Gophers looked stagnant, uninspired and unable to play the style Smith advertised. But in the postseason, things turned around. The Gophers started playing the way they were built -- fast-paced, transition-oriented and athletic. Players proved they were conditioned enough to sustain the intensity, and the Gophers started playing better all-around.
THREE LINGERING QUESTIONS
1 Will Mbakwe come back?
Mbakwe recently learned he was granted a sixth year by the NCAA. He still needs to decide whether he will take it, and if he does, it could mean a complicated situation for Minnesota, which is at the D-I maximum 13 scholarships. Smith is hoping the NCAA will "work with them," but if not, someone would have to transfer. It's even more complicated because ex-Hopkins standout Trent Lockett, who is mulling a transfer from Arizona State and would be eligible immediately if he graduates early as expected, also could be in the mix depending on scholarship availability.
2 Can the Gophers have sustained success in the Big Ten?
The postseason run gave a promise of hope. But if Mbakwe returns along with marked improvement from the rest of the squad, fans will expect nothing short of a respectable showing in the conference standings -- where the Gophers have never finished better than sixth under Smith -- and an NCAA bid.
3 The status of the coaching staff
Questions about Smith's job status came up during the year, and his name again has been mentioned in connection to other vacancies. But the NIT run has brightened the outlook, and Smith is anticipating contract extension talk to restart. He might be without associate head coach Ron Jirsa, who will interview next week for the head job at Division III Northland College in Ashland, Wis.