For many teams, one short clip says it all.
An official entry to the NCAA tournament, especially for a team on the bubble, is a momentous event, and often a raucous occasion. Throughout the NCAA selection show on Sunday, short videos of teams in that position flashed across the screen as their squad names were called. Fingers crossed, players crouched before the television screens and breathlessly awaited the announcements. And then, after getting a bid, an explosion of happiness that brings the anointed from their seats.
But that wasn’t the scene at Williams Arena on Sunday, at least publicly. Perhaps that’s because while Minnesota — which was chosen as an No. 11 seed and will face sixth-seeded UCLA in the first round of the South Region on Friday in Austin, Texas — was teetering at the edge of the bubble, the Gophers had fallen there, rather than climbed.
When team captains Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams filed into the media room immediately after the announcement, it was hard to tell from their weary faces that they had reached the accomplishment at all.
“I think everyone was happy, as they should be,” Hollins said, downplaying the duo’s demeanor and noting there was private jubilation. “We’re happy to be here, we’re excited, but we know there is more work to be done. We’ve had our ups and downs through the season, but that’s behind us now.”
The Gophers finished only 8-11 against conference foes this season, including an 0-2 final stretch and a loss to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
“We certainly know how tough it is,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “It’s a real grind in this league, and I think everybody that competes in it as a coach or as a player understands how tough it is. That’s the respect that the Big Ten has around the country — by getting seven teams in the tournament.”
Before the Gophers’ embarked on their trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas in November — the first of the Gophers’ five games away from Williams Arena during the nonconference schedule — Smith lamented the travel schedule as something that could wear out his players.
But in retrospect, the Gophers’ nonconference schedule, coordinated by assistant coach Joe Esposito, is really where the Gophers secured their NCAA standing. Esposito selected a number of opponents that, while they didn’t particularly prove challenging for the Gophers, did quite well in their respective leagues, boosting Minnesota’s overall Ratings Percentage Index.
Additionally, the Gophers scheduled some bigger names. They played in what was heralded as the best nonconference tournament in the Battle 4 Atlantis — playing Duke, Memphis and Stanford — and traveled to Florida State and USC, picking up victories at both schools. That early foundation kept the Gophers’ RPI in the top 40 even as they struggled in Big Ten play.
“I just believe you’ve got to measure your team early, test where you are,” Smith said. “We’ve done that. Unfortunately this year, all the things we found out about ourselves, we didn’t seem to carry it over as well as we’d like into conference play.”