By Dave Campbell
Minnesota made the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years, and the Gophers had their best record against ranked teams in Tubby Smith’s six seasons here.
None of that made selection Sunday much of a reason to celebrate. Sure, Minnesota was included in the field of 68, as the No. 11 seed in the South region. But the Gophers skidded into tournament with 11 losses in their last 16 games. They were relieved to be included, but after rising as high as eighth in the rankings in early January simply getting a spot was not their goal.
After the bracket was unveiled, pitting Minnesota (20-12) against No. 6 seed UCLA (25-9) on Friday in Austin, Texas, the Gophers naturally expressed optimism about the fresh start, and said their familiar late-season fade is really no longer relevant.
“It feels great. This is a new opportunity for us,” junior small forward Austin Hollins said. “We haven’t played our best basketball, but none of that matters now.”
The Gophers have gone one-and-done in both of their previous NCAA tournament appearances under Smith. The program’s last such win was in 1997, the Final Four team later stripped of its records for the academic fraud scandal uncovered in 1999. So in the NCAA’s eyes, Minnesota actually hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1990.
Power forward Rodney Williams is the only player on this team who participated the last time, a loss to Xavier in 2010. Sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe played in a 2008 tournament game for Marquette.
“We’ll get the guys together. We’ll talk about it. Hopefully we can give everybody some good words of wisdom and get this thing rolling right away,” Williams said. He added: “I think every time you go out and play you want to go out and prove something, make it known that we’re a team to be reckoned with. We know how good we are and how the Illinois loss hurt, but this is a new chance. We can’t go back and worry about what happened.”
The Gophers went 5-5 against teams in the Top 25 at the time they faced them this season. In 2011-12, they were 1-8. The only other time under Smith they came close to this was a 4-7 mark in 2009-10. They had three wins over the Big Ten’s top five teams, and the depth and strength of this conference, as good as it’s been in arguably decades, was what got the Gophers in.
Smith’s contract, extended last summer, calls for a $100,000 bonus for a spot in the NCAA tournament. If the Gophers don’t win at least a game or two, the 61-year-old could find himself in jeopardy of losing his job.
“This is a business of, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ That’s the way the business operates,” Smith said. “That’s the profession we chose. That’s not up to me. We just do our job and do the best we can and go from there. ... I don’t apologize or I don’t defend anything. We do the best we can. We do a good job. That’s why we’re NCAA bound.”
The Gophers caught a break when UCLA freshman Jordan Adams broke his right foot in the Pac-12 tournament. The Bruins lost to Oregon in the championship game on Saturday with no time to prepare and Adams watching from the bench in a boot. He averaged 15.3 points, 2.2 steals and 30.3 minutes per game.
The Pac-12 is typically more fast-paced, and defense isn’t as rugged as in the Big Ten. The Gophers wouldn’t have to face another team from their conference if they continued to advance until, potentially, the regional finals. Michigan is the other Big Ten team in the South region.
“We just have to play our game. We have to figure out what we do best,” Smith said. “I would hope that we fit in that style if we can play that style. It’s kind of a grind-it-out in the Big Ten, so yeah I think it’s a good matchup for us.”