Well that was anticlimactic. At least it doesn't really matter though, it's still just the NIT. I know getting your doors blown off by a bunch of poindexters isn't exactly the ideal way to end your season, but at least we aren't getting cheated out of another game - I mean they're done either way. I think I know the answer to the eternal question "Win the NIT or lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament" if I didn't already, and it's emphatically losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Even if the Gophers had won this game I wouldn't look back on this season fondly as a team who won the NIT, I'd look back on it as a wasted season when a team with enough talent to make the NCAA Tournament squandered it, blew several games it should have won, and end up in the yucky tournament instead. That's not to say there aren't good things about the NIT, however.
Think about what we know now that we wouldn't have if the Gophers didn't get these five games. At the end of the season I felt pretty good about Dre Hollins future. Post-NIT I feel absolutely great about it, and it wouldn't surprise me to see him make an All-Big 10 First Team at some point in the future. Throwing out the Stanford game (and we're going to ignore that for pretty much everything from here on down) he was dominant. He has an ability to get to the rim that nobody else has on this squad which is especially handy when you're a 92% free throw shooter and has an outstanding mid-range jumper. He's not the best three-point shooter but he's not bad at all for a freshman, and his percentages should get even better as he gets more experience and figures out how to get and when to take better shots. As long as he can get a handle on those turnovers (and tonight was simply awful) he's going to be a star.
At the end of the regular season, I thought Rodney Williams had taken a small step forward in his game and at least had a chance at realizing some of that potential we've heard so much about going back to his high school days. Now, post-NIT, I've come to realize that instead of hoping he takes a step forward we should be more concerned about him taking a step back, because this NIT version of Williams is exactly what we've been waiting for. It's like something suddenly clicked and the flashes he'd shown all season suddenly became one great big shining supernova of dunkatronation. When he's on and feeling confident he's unstoppable. Any time he gets the ball inside the 3-point line, even on the perimeter, his athleticism means he can get to the rim any time he wants and it looks like he's figuring that out. Hell, he even added a little bit of a perimeter game which can only help as long as he doesn't go all Rickert on the bit and fall in love with the jumper. If he works all off season on making his jumper more reliable - even out to 15 feet, say - and learns when to go all the way to the rim on the drive and when to pull up (and how to hit) a floater or short jumper he's a guaranteed all Big 10er. I honestly believe he's got player of the year potential, but of course that's the poisoned word with Rodney - "potential." But we've seen it now, hopefully he can put it together for a full season.
Those obviously are the big two, but Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman have thrived on the wing as well. Neither are the best at getting their own shot (at least not yet at this level) so playing in a more wide open offense like the one the Gophers have adopted in this tournament can only help them score since both are good athletes who can score in transition. Hollins also continues to hit that elbow jumper curling off a screen at a high percentage, and I've gone from meh on him to pretty happy he's here. Same with Elliott Eliason, who I was convinced was going to be a waste of a scholarship and never develop into a Big 10 caliber player, but in this post-NIT world I've decided I like him. He must have a serious confidence problem because when he knows the post is his for the game (any time Sampson has been injured) he plays with confidence and enthusiasm and a kind of reckless abandon that is missing when he's looking over his should ever 30 seconds, terrified to make a mistake and get pulled from the game. And the post is pretty much his next year, so they'll need to the good version. Hell, even Andre Ingram went from "worthless other than his five fouls" to "quality back-up." In the five NIT games he scored 8+ points three times and grabbed at least four rebounds in four of them. I never would have guessed he had it in him.
So yeah, I don't care about the loss other than how sloppy they played, but getting these five extra games were huge for this team and showed the value of the NIT to a young team who takes this tournament seriously, and Tubby seemed to be having fun (and thus was fully engaged) for this run, which can only help next year. Add in the possibility of Trevor Mbakwe coming back and the chance that Trent Lockett transferring in and there is a lot of reason for optimism, something that's been missing from Gopherland since, what, Tubby's second year?
Now that being said, keep a couple of things in mind. First, and most importantly, don't forget that the teams the Gophers beat during this run, as well as the team that beat them, are thoroughly mediocre teams. Washington, Middle Tennessee, and Miami were all bubble teams for the NCAA Tournament who didn't make the cut, while Stanford and LaSalle had no shot. Some of the teams these guys lost to this year were embarrassing - Fordham, Arkansas State, Robert Morris, Oregon State, Maryland, etc. Then there's the real problem where the first time this team ran into a real defense (Stanford was the only top 50 defensive efficiency team) their previously clicking on all cylinders offense suddenly turned into a garbage factory. Not a great sign. Additionally as great as the addition of Mbakwe for next year would be there's always the chance it causes Rodney to go back into his shell and disappear too often again when he's not a focal point of the attack.
So yeah, there are plenty of reasons for optimism going into next season, but just make sure you temper it and don't start declaring them a Sweet 16 team just yet. I mean come on, this is still Minnesota - I can't wait to see what goes wrong first.