Who Are You: Minnesota

Stanford faces Minnesota for the NIT Championship!

Kevin Danna brings his insights, observations, and reporting skills to the table before Thursday evening's NIT final between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Stanford Cardinal!

On Wednesday, as the team piled on in to the New York Athletic Club for practice, I thought to myself "hey, this is the last practice of the season, and everybody knows it. This, for sure, is the last time Stanford men's basketball will practice in the 2011-12 campaign."

While more teams can make this statement than those teams that win postseason tournaments or have played so poorly that they won't make their conference tournament or they are a DI-indy school that is S.O.L. for any sort of postseason play, it's still a unique feeling for a middle-of-the-pack one-percenter conference team. One I never felt as a manager in my four years; one no Stanford squad has experienced since 1993 (no conference tourney back then for the 7-23 Farm Boys).

That's what playing in a championship game means, and later today, the Stanford Cardinal will square off with the Minnesota Golden Gophers at the self-proclaimed most famous arena in the world for the NIT Championship and a chance to add "2012" next to "1991" on the banner hanging from the rafters inside The House That Roscoe Built.

So what do we know about Minnesota? Here's a primer:

Minnesota - The Program

Fifteen to 20 years ago, Minnesota Golden Gopher basketball was a power. After winning the school's first NIT Championship in 1993 with a win over Georgetown in the finals, Clem Haskins led the Gophers to four straight NCAA tournament appearances, culminating in a trip to the Final Four. Minnesota would not make it back to the NCAA tournament in 1998, but they took home the granddaddy consolation prize of ‘em all again by knocking off Penn State in the NIT title game. This would propel Minnesota to a #7 seed for next year's NCAA tournament, as they were set to take on Gonzaga

…and then George Dohrmann, the man who wrote Play Their Hearts Out and the "Not the UCLA Way" article for Sports Illustrated, broke the news that a former basketball office manager had written hundreds of papers for multiple players, including four who were currently on the team. As a result, those four guys were suspended for the Gonzaga game, the Gophers lost, an NCAA investigation ensued, Clem Haskins was slapped with a show-cause, the Gophers were given four years of probation, and boom went the dynamite on the Minnesota basketball program. According to the NCAA, everything I wrote about in the paragraph above didn't officially happen.

But, they still do have one legitimate NIT banner, and they for real-deal-Holyfield almost made the Final Four back in 1990, losing to Georgia Tech 93-91 in the Elite Eight.

More than that, though, the days of academic fraud are well behind Minnesota, as the next two full-time head coaches - Dan Monson and Tubby Smith - are some of the most respected men in the business. Monson only took the Gophers to one Big Dance, but he was credited with cleaning up the program big time. Then came Tubby Smith, fresh off the most successful stint ever at a school and still be ushered out of the place at Kentucky (only in Lexington can you be essentially sent packing after ten straight 22-plus win seasons, an NCAA title, three Elite 8s, two Sweet 16s, and ten NCAA tournament appearances in ten seasons, never losing in the first round. Good thing they got Gillespie to replace him…). All he did was take a school that went 8-22 the year before and send them to the NIT and two straight NCAA tournament appearances. I guess "the team from the SEC" has its guy now with Calipari, but Tubby didn't get nearly the amount of respect from the Lexington folks he deserved.

Times have gotten a little leaner in Minneapolis as of late, with no NCAA bids the last two years and a slew (and by slew, I mean three) of guys transferring out west: Colorado State's Colton Iverson and two of the Pac-12's better players this year in Oregon's Devoe Joseph and Cal's Justin Cobbs.

Minnesota - The 2011-12 Edition

You will basically need to knock down Jim Delany's door to figure out how much "official" pre-season hype the Golden Gophers had entering this season following a 17-14, 6-12 campaign, a year in which Minnesota started off on fire, beating #8 North Carolina in the preseason and being ranked for most of the year before spiraling into mediocrity to conclude the season with six straight losses and ten of 11 overall. That's because the Big Ten only released who finished in the top three in the preseason poll.

But that same Big Ten release will tell also tell you that there was at least some hype surrounding the team, thanks to power forward Trevor Mbakwe, a fifth-year senior who was selected to the preseason All-Big Ten team alongside Sullinger, Draymond Green, Robbie Hummel and Jordan Taylor. And through six games, that pre-season label was warranted, as Mbakwe was averaging a near-double-double with 14 points and nine rebounds per contest.

Then came the seventh game of the season, the Old Spice Classic Final against Dayton. In the second half of that one, Trevor tore his ACL, and so went the Gophers' NCAA hopes. But I will now pull out the most used sports cliché of all time when a star player goes down by saying the Gophers continued to fight hard, posting six wins in the toughest conference in college basketball this year and losing another three games in overtime (with their win over Washington on Tuesday night, the Gophers have played six overtime games this year). If it weren't for two losing streaks that lasted four and six games in conference, the Gophers could have been a tournament team.

But lose four to start Big Ten play they did, and after winning five of seven, losing six straight they did before beating Nebraska in the regular season finale. They then essentially knocked Northwestern out of the NCAA tournament with an overtime victory in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament before losing to Michigan in overtime in the quarterfinals, setting up their NIT run.

Minnesota was probably on as many pins and needles as I was heading into the NIT selection show - would a team that lost two-thirds of its conference games be considered good enough to earn a spot in the Real Field of 32? Of course, the answer was yes, otherwise I wouldn't be previewing these dudes. They first faced off against sneaky-good La Salle in the first round of the NIT, beating the A10 squad 70-61 in Explorerville. Despite shooting 1-11 from downtown, the Golden Gophers were 52 percent from the field overall and outrebounded the Explorers 32-23. It was a close game for most of the way, with La Salle holding an advantage as late as midway through the second half, but the Explorers were held to just four points in the final 6:43 to lose contact with the visiting squad.

Then it was time for the Golden Gophers to take their talents to South Beach, as Minnesota shot the absolute crap out of the ball - 58 percent for the game, 6-13 from three, en route to a 78-60 rout of the No. 2 seed Miami Hurricanes. Unlike the La Salle game, the Miami one was never close as the lead for Minnesota was in single digits only once in the second half with the Gophers expanding their lead to as much as 22.

All Minnesota had to do next was beat a Middle Tennessee State team that made noise in November by crushing the UCLA Bruins by 20 in Los Angeles in its native Murfreesboro. A Rodney Williams layup with 16:44 to play in the second half gave Minnesota the lead for good, but the Blue Raiders would make the Gophers earn it, keeping it around two possessions for the rest of the game and cutting it to a deuce with seven seconds to play. But in one of the most dumb-unluck plays of all time, MTSU's Laron Dendy accidentally touched the ball in the in-bounder's hands as he was waving his arms to provide pressure on the passer. That's a technical foul, and Minnesota iced the game with four free throws, becoming the second team of the 2012 NIT to advance to New York City after playing three road games.

Minnesota - The Washington Game

This was Tubbyball at its finest. Minnesota completely flustered Washington in its half-court offensive sets and held the Huskies to without a field goal for the first three minutes of the game and, if it weren't for a Darnell Gant buzzer-beater, would have held the Dawgs to 23 first half points and nine first-half field goals.

Lorenzo Romar said his guys played more like a team in the second half, but they were rarely ever able to get into the open court. In fact, Washington was held to two fast break points for the whole game, something that rarely ever happens (strangely enough, Utah held U-Dub scoreless in that category in Salt Lake City in early January in a near-upset). Minnesota really had Washington searching offensively; Tony Wroten looked absolutely silly out there trying to go one on five and having almost zero success, Abdul Gaddy had some very questionable quick three attempts off offensive rebounds, and C.J. Wilcox was forced to try to create his own shot - something he can do, but he's much more of a rhythm shooter.

Eventually, Washington did get back into it. Down eight coming out of the under-four timeout in the second half, U-Dub tallied off eight straight points to send the game into OT, none more important than C.J. Wilcox stealing a Joe Coleman pass intended for Andre Hollins and laying it in with 16 seconds to play. Tony Wroten damn near fouled Andre Hollins and his game-winning attempt in regulation, then Wroten damn near won the thing with a 40-foot shot that just rimmed out as time expired.

Washington appeared to have all the momentum going into OT, but Tubbyball prevailed again with its lockdown, half-court man defense that forced Washington into more Tupac-Me-Against-the-World basketball, as the Huskies had only 11 assists on 26 made buckets. Andre and Austin Hollins combined for all seven Gopher points in the extra cinco minutos, and Minnesota survived a three-quarter court heave at the buzzer to advance to the finals with a 68-67 victory in overtime.

Minnesota - The Starting Five

You'll see that everyone who is currently starting will be back, plus Mbakwe was just granted a sixth year of eligibility, so this team will have plenty of returning firepower to contend in the Big Ten next season.

·         Joe Coleman (#11, 6-4, 200-lb freshman guard) - Part of a very young group on the perimeter for Tubby Smith, Coleman was the No. 92 recruit of his class.  He has started every game since their Michigan State tilt on Feb. 22 and has shot it well in limited attempts ever since - 16-27 in his starts from late February leading up to the Washington game. He struggled a decent bit in the semifinals, shooting just 2-9 from the floor and throwing the bad pass that led to overtime, but he also contributed four rebounds, three assists, and three blocks.

·         Rodney Williams (#33, 6-7, 205-lb Junior F) - This is the guy who has taken Mbakwe's spot, and it really has been a better fit for Rodney on the court. He was a center in high school who switched to small forward his first two years at Minnesota. Once Trevor went down, Rodney became the new starting "4" for Tubby Smith, which Tubby says is a more natural for him because he can use his athleticism in the paint to his advantage against bigger dudes. The stats show he leads the team with 12.2 pts, 5.6 boards, 1.4 blocks, and 1.3 steals to go along with his 1.7 assists. He had a huge lefty take in the game against Washington late in the second half. Despite all this, Tubby told me he expects more from his junior forward.

·         Andre Hollins (#1, 6-1, 200-lb Freshman PG) - The man who lost out in the Class of 2011 Scholarship Sweepstakes on the campus of Stanford University, Andre was the No. 77 recruit in his class. Would have been really nice to see he and Chasson Randle in the same backcourt as this guy is a game-changer; great penetrator, and can really score it. He looked like a magician at times last night, taking it to the hoop to put Minnesota up three with 23 seconds to go in overtime, a drive in which he threw it up over Darnell Gant and Terrence Ross while falling away from the hoop.  He got some bumps and bruises along the way (missing a game against Saint Peter's and only playing six and nine minutes against Indiana and Northwestern, respectively), but he has really turned it up in the postseason, averaging 23 ppg in the Big Ten Tourney and 17.8 ppg in the four NIT games.

·         Austin Hollins (#20, 6-4, 185-lb sophomore guard) - He is not related to Andre, but Austin is the son of Lionel Hollins, the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. He was a big factor for Tubby in the win over La Salle in the first round, scoring 16 points against the Explorers. Not counting Mbakwe, Austin is the third-leading scorer on Minnesota at 9.1 ppg and has also made the most threes out of anyone on the team with 51 (though he doesn't have the best percentage).

·         Elliott Eliason (#55, 6-11, 260-lb Sophomore C) - Who can forget Johnny's recruitment of Elliott? He doesn't really look to score much but was huge in the Middle Tennessee State game with a 12-point, seven-rebound effort against the Blue Raiders.  He passes well out of the post (four assists against the Dawgs) and is a big body who can rebound it (eight boards in that game as well). He has started the previous six games, ever since Ralph Sampson III sprained his right knee (this has kept him out of the Big Ten Tournament and NIT). Talk about injury troubles for big men - Oto Osenieks, another post, has been out with a concussion the last couple of games.

Minnesota - The Reserves

·         Julian Welch (#00, 6-3, 197-lb Junior guard) - He is a UC Davis transfer from Elk Grove, Calif. Dude is the biggest three-point threat for team, shooting 45% from downtown and went 4-4 from three in the 18-point shellacking of "The U." He has not started since sitting 2 games because of a hip pointer (he has actually started 21 on the season), but is the team's biggest threat off the bench.

·         Chip Armelin (#23, 6-3, 198-lb Sophomore guard) - One of my favorite names in all of college basketball, Chip Armelin averages 14 minutes per game off bench and is pretty productive - 5.3 points and 2.1 rebounds. He didn't do much against Washington, playing only a handful of minutes (five to be exact), and is only a 50 percent foul shooter.

·         Maverick Ahanmisi (#13, 6-2, 192-lb sophomore guard from Santa Clarita, CA) - Like Armelin, Ahanmisi also averages 14 minutes per game off the bench.  Like Armelin, he played sparingly against the Huskies (two minutes, one rebound, and one foul). He's less productive, averaging 2.8 points and 1.3 rebounds.

·         Andre Ingram (#30, 6'7, 213-lb Junior F) - The JuCo transfer scored nine points and five boards off the pine for Tubby in the UW game. He doesn't usually play a whole bunch, but due to Oto's injury, he has averaged 20 minutes per game over the last three, as opposed to 8.1 for the season overall.

The Stat Comparison

Category

Minnesota

Stanford

Scoring

68.1 (64.5)

71.7 (63.5)

FG%

.465 (.412)

.444 (.414)

3FG%

.358 (.344)

.377 (.337)

FT%

.699

.665

Rebounds

35 (31)

37.1 (32.6)

Defensive Rebounding %

.678 (.632)

.717 (.650)

Assists

15.1 (11.6)

12.8 (10.6)

Assists/FG ratio

,625 (.526)

.505 (.478)

Turnovers

14.5 (12.9)

13.8 (14.9)

Steals

7.1 (7.7)

6.5 (6.6)

Blocks

4.9 (3.7)

3.4 (3.9)

Percentage of shots as 3s

.288 (.353)

.318 (.313)

 

People can complain all they want about Tubbyball not being exciting, but you can't knock it for being bad, selfish offensive basketball. Sure, the Gophers turn it over a decent amount, but look at that assist-to-field goal ratio - that's pretty damn good, and it blows Stanford's .505 out of the water. What's more impressive about that stat is that there isn't a single guy on the team with 100 assists on the season (Julian Welch has 99); instead, nine of the ten guys who average double-digit minutes on the season have at least 30 assists.

Minnesota is a team that can force the Farm Boys to look like the way they did against UMASS for the middle 20 minutes of that game due to their solid half-court defense, but then again, Dawkins said he purposely slowed it down against UMASS so as to not get into a track meet with the Minutemen. Dawkins will certainly try to push it a little more against the Gophers, and if they can out-will the Golden Gophers in this fashion (it won't be easy - Washington found that out the hard way on Tuesday night), Stanford should be in good shape.

Wichita State, the NIT champs, were a #5 seed in the NCAAs this year; Alabama, the NIT runners-up, were a #9 seed. Neither advanced to the Round of 32, but Wichita State was in a much better position to be a second weekend team. Not that this translates every year, but the NIT Champs usually make the NCAA tournament the next year-  actually, that's not true at all - only three of the past seven NIT champions made the Big Dance the next year.

Still, a championship is a championship is a championship, and Stanford hasn't won its final game of the season in 21 years. You can talk about momentum into next season all you want, but it's about winning on Thursday for the sake of winning on Thursday and getting a title. Plain and simple.

Time for the Stanford Cardinal to be pissed off for greatness.


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