Woo-wee, who's excited for this one? I certainly am, and although you'd probably assume it (and be right most of the time) that's not sarcasm - I'm legitimately fired up for this game. Not because it's the NIT Final Four because that's a pretty meh accomplishment still, but because Washington is fun as hell to watch. They're the embodiment of everything circus ball, and even without Captain Circus Ball himself (Isaiah Thomas, now captaining Circus Ball with the Kings) they still manage to push that tempo, ranking 30th in the country in overall pace. And they're always consistent with it, never ranking worse than 57th in the past 10 years with three top-10 finishes and seven in the top-30.
No other big conference team, outside of North Carolina under Roy Williams, consistently plays like this. Missouri had a nice run under Mike Anderson, but both prior to and after him they slow it down considerably (this year's team, which seemed kind of circus ball-y, was actually middle of the pack). The only other teams, period, with a sustained run of craziness are the smaller schools like VMI and Alcorn State, so watching Washington play will be a treat. I suppose that's what happens when a crazy circus ball coach like Lorenzo Romar lands at a place where they're plenty ok with mediocrity like Washington. And we are all better for it.
What makes this doubly exciting is that Tubby has taken off the reigns and accepted the fact that this is a guard-oriented squad now, especially with Ralph out (he's still out, right? RIGHT?) and let 'em run. In case you're worried about it being a mirage, looking at the total possessions of the NIT games the Gophers + Opponent have had 67, 64, and 69 in the three games. That 69 and 67 are the #2 and #3 (tied) most possessions of any Gopher games this year, behind just that silly DePaul game early in the year. They're now playing uptempo (well, top 100 tempo at least), Washington plays super uptempo and gets team's to join them, and as long as Tubby doesn't get in the way we should be looking at a super spastic, circus ball scoring fest. I'm thinking both teams in the 80s, so I'm heavily invested (for an NIT game) in that OVER 143.5, and I suggest you do the same.
Looking deeper at Washington it should come as little surprise based on the way they play that they are loaded with athletes, beginning with their top two scorers - PG Tony Wroten (16.2 ppg) and swingman Terrence Ross (16.3 ppg). Both were big-time recruits (Wroten #14 this year, Ross #48 last year by Rivals) and both project to be mid-first round picks if they enter the draft after this season.
Wroten is the new Captain Circus Ball and is interesting because he can't shoot at all (16% from 3 and very little mid-range game) but can get to the rim nearly at will and is nearly impossible to guard even if he usually gets played off in a Rondo-esque fashion (he's also Rondo-like from the line at 58%). Think a smaller Rodney Williams who already knows how to get to the rim whenever he wants. Ross, on the other hand, has a real nice all-around game and can score from pretty much anywhere. The good news for Minnesota is both have a tendency to disappear (Wroten 2 pts vs. Northwestern on only 5 shots, Ross 2 pts vs. Wash State on only 5 shots a month ago). The bad news is that Ross is having a Rodney Williams-like string right now, averaging 26 points per in the 3 NIT games, including 32 vs. Northwestern. I have no idea how the Gophers will stop either of these guys.
To make things worse, the Huskies also trot out C.J. Wilcox on the wing who was 7th in the Pac-10 in both 3-pointers made (64%) and 3-point percentage (41%). About half of his shot attempts are from behind the arc, so he's not completely dependent on it to score, but when Washington is running their break, which they will do constantly, if he doesn't have a clear lane he'll find a place to spot up and nail it if he's open. Despite the Gophers nice little NIT win streak they haven't magically figured out how to stop the three, and with Wilcox and Ross on the wing they're going to have to be careful not to get lit up in a hurry.
Two other dudes worth mentioning are PG Abdul Gaddy, who leads the team in assists but still isn't back to his old self (was the #2 ranked PG out of school in his class behind John Wall) after tearing his ACL, and C Aziz N'Diaye who, you'd probably guess, is a seven-foot defensive specialist with very little offensive game. I'm looking forward to seeing Rodney Williams dunk on his face.
It should be a fun game of up-and-down the court basketball between two evenly matched and evenly motivated (Washington won the regular season Pac-12 title but didn't get an NCAA invite after losing to Oregon State in the P12 tournament) teams. If the Gophers can take care of the basketball at the frenetic pace Washington will likely dictate this will be a close game. Unfortunately the Gophers still turn it over too often and the Huskies are good when it comes to creating turnovers in the chaos, so I think Minnesota ends up turning it over a bit too much, but look for a close, super awesome to watch game with Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams continuing their big-time scoring runs.
Washington 85, Minnesota 80.