Golden Gophers claim a No. 1 seed in NIT

Published 9:24 am Monday, March 17, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s first postseason under coach Richard Pitino will be in the NIT, just like his predecessor Tubby Smith.

The Gophers (20-13) were expectedly passed over for the NCAA tournament after losing their last game by 26 points to Wisconsin in the Big Ten quarterfinals, so they were selected as one of the four No. 1 seeds for the National Invitation Tournament when the 32-team consolation field was revealed on Sunday night.

The Gophers host High Point (16-14), the regular-season Big South Conference champion, on Tuesday night. If the Gophers win, they’ll play either Saint Mary’s or Utah in the second round. As the top seed, they would also play a third-round game at home.

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Working against the Gophers were their losing record (8-10) in conference play, the lack of any remarkable victories on the road and a fade down the stretch with only five wins in their last 13 games.

“Wherever we play and whatever tournament we play in and whoever we play, we’re going to hope to win because we’re fortunate to be able to play this game,” Pitino said in Indianapolis on Friday night after the loss to the rival Badgers, who got a No. 2 seed in the West region of the NCAA tournament. “We’re lucky, and our guys enjoy it. They love it. I enjoy coaching it, so I’m not going to take that for granted.”

Since the run to the Final Four in 1997 and subsequent fallout from the academic fraud scandal that officially erased that feat, Minnesota has been on the so-called bubble of the available at-large bids on a near-annual basis, and most of the time that bubble has burst.

Over the last 15 years, the Gophers have four NCAA tournament appearances. They were seeded eighth, 10th, 11th and 11th in 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2013, with last year yielding the only win. This is their seventh NIT berth in that span. Four times since 2000 they were passed over for the postseason altogether.

Smith’s first of six years running the program produced a 20-14 record and a one-and-done NIT appearance, losing at home to Maryland in 2008. Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and Elliott Eliason were on the team in 2012 that won four straight games to reach the NIT championship, where the Gophers lost to Stanford.

Smith, interestingly, played for High Point in North Carolina the early 1970s. The Gophers beat the Panthers in their only previous meeting in 2008.

The Gophers were unavailable for comment on Sunday night.

The last four teams picked by the NCAA selection committee for at-large spots were Iowa (20-12), Tennessee (21-12), North Carolina State and Xavier. Though Minnesota beat them without much trouble at home on Feb. 25, the placement of the Hawkeyes on the opening-round play-in portion of the bracket essentially sewed up the exclusion of the Gophers. Iowa lost six of its last seven games but had more wins over top-tier teams and fewer losses to lower-rated opponents.

Nebraska (19-12) also nabbed one of the last at-large bids as a No. 11 seed. The Huskers beat the Gophers in their only meeting this season and finished three games ahead of them in the Big Ten standings.