One hour after the NCAA had awarded its 68 tournament bids, Williams Arena was still quiet. There would be no news conference. No players would be celebrating.
But then, it was a result that was almost expected. After Minnesota’s 83-57 loss to Wisconsin in the second round of the Big Ten tournament Friday, the Gophers appeared to be a long shot to make the NCAA tournament.
Sunday night, that fate was finalized. After all the teams had been announced, Minnesota still hadn’t heard its name called.
Instead, as a consolation prize, the Gophers will compete in the NIT as the No. 1 overall seed. Minnesota will play High Point (N.C.) at Williams Arena in the first round at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday.
“While we are obviously disappointed that we were not selected for the NCAA tournament field, we are extremely excited about the opportunity to continue our season in the NIT,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said in a release. “There is nothing better than the opportunity to play for a championship, and our players and staff are looking forward to the challenge.”
Pitino and the players were not made available to the media Sunday night.
The Gophers last competed in the NIT two years ago, when they advanced to the championship game before losing to Stanford 75-51.
Minnesota had hovered on the NCAA bubble for weeks but was not in the final bracket projections of either CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm or ESPN’s Joe Lunardi during the past two weeks, nor on Sunday. The Gophers finished 8-10 in the Big Ten and won their opening-round matchup against Penn State in the conference tournament before losing to Wisconsin.
Overall, the Big Ten contributed six bids in Wisconsin (a No. 2 seed), Michigan (2), Michigan State (4), Ohio State (6), Nebraska (11) and Iowa (11, playing in a play-in game Tuesday).
The Gophers’ tournament résumé was comparable to a few of their fellow bubble teams in terms of their raw computer numbers, but their lack of impressive victories prevented them from even being considered in the first four out, according to NCAA tournament committee chairman Ron Wellman.
The Gophers managed only two victories against top-50 RPI teams, burned by the collapses of teams they had beaten such as Florida State (which also got a No. 1 seed in the NIT) and Iowa. And Minnesota had only three unimpressive league victories away from Williams Arena in Northwestern and Penn State, plus a first-round trumping of the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten tournament.
On the flip side, a team such as North Carolina State — the biggest surprise bid of the night — was rewarded for its strong play away from home.
Such factors made it relatively easy for committee members to bypass Minnesota.
“We tried to identify differentiators — things that were either very positive or negative about certain teams,” Wellman said. “The positive factor for N.C. State was that they had three wins against top-50 teams away from home. … Road wins against top-50 teams are really, really impressive to the committee. So that was probably the factor that was the most prominent.”
At the beginning of the year, Minnesota seemed an unlikely candidate to reach the NCAA tournament. After former coach Tubby Smith was fired, Pitino had to scrape together four scholarship players in a few weeks, then contend with a roster that had lost its best player and entire starting frontcourt. Outside of guards Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, the team was notably inexperienced.
But some big moments helped to raise those initial expectations. The Gophers beat second-seeded Wisconsin and sixth-seeded Ohio State at Williams Arena, and had strong player development throughout the year, especially in post players Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker and point guard DeAndre Mathieu.
“The opportunity to play, to continue to play when [not everyone] else in the country is, that’s huge right there,” Andre Hollins said Friday. “That’s key. To keep getting better, competing. That’s all you can ask for, to keep playing basketball.”