It's the first day of April and only two Big Ten teams still have basketball games to play this season. One is Wisconsin, which has finally reached the pinnacle of college hoops after a grueling four-game tournament run. The other is Minnesota, which is one of the final four teams remaining... in the NIT.
No one is going to be throwing Richard Pitino and the Golden Gophers a party for advancing to the semifinals of that other postseason tournament, but fans of frequent NIT qualifiers know that getting this far wasn't easy. Minnesota's last two opponents, Saint Mary's and Southern Miss, both have resumes that are comparable to 11- or 12- seeds in the big dance. Anyone who has ever filled out a bracket knows how feisty those 12-seeds can be.
How has Minnesota avoided potential pitfalls thus far? Even though the Gophers haven't been stingy in their field goal defense, they've used some great guard performances to outscore their opponents. In the first round of the NIT against High Point, Maverick Ahanmisi stepped up to score 21 points and pace Minnesota past a Panthers team that had shot 46 percent from three-point range.
Joey King took over center stage against Saint Mary's with a team-high 18 points, but it was Austin Hollins who did the dirty work. The senior handed out five assists, grabbed five rebounds, and turned the ball over just once in the Gophers' 63-55 victory.
Hollins only scored 10 points versus the Gaels, but he more than made up for that in the quarterfinals, when he dumped 32 points on Southern Miss. Shooting 6-for-11 from beyond the arc while dishing out four assists with zero turnovers is the definition of sizzling, but the Gophers will need more than a hot offense if they hope to continue their NIT run.
That's because Minnesota was the worst team in the Big Ten at defending the three-point line, while its next opponent, Florida State, was tops in the ACC at shooting the ball from there. Even in victories, the Gophers allowed High Point and St. Mary's to light it up from beyond the arc, so imagine what a Seminole team can do coming off a few hot shooting games of its own.
Aaron Thomas in particular has been on fire with over 20 points scored in each NIT game. Much of that is thanks to his 6-for-12 three-point shooting in the tournament, and he's not the only Seminole who can hit a long-range shot. Both Ian Miller and Devon Bookert are shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc this season, and they could make life hard on the Minnesota defense Tuesday night.
Of course, Florida State is not without its weaknesses. Leonard Hamilton's team turns the ball over a ton and has trouble preventing offense rebounds. That could open up some opportunities for Maurice Walker and Elliot Eliason to crash the glass and give Minnesota some extra field goal attempts. To counter, Hamilton could give Michael Ojo, his best defensive center, some more minutes, but lately he seems focused on keeping the skinnier (7'3", 235 pounds) Boris Bojanovsky on the floor.
"Bojo" has a decent offensive game and is a gifted shot blocker, but the stronger Ojo may be needed to keep Minnesota's beefier forwards off the boards. It will be interesting to see on Tuesday if Florida State can hit enough shots to make up for the rebounds it could yield to Walker and Eliason.
When these two teams met in the Big Ten/ACC challenge back in December, it was the Seminoles who held an advantage in offensive rebounding percentage, but they lost to the Gophers in Minnesota 71-61. This was despite Florida State making 18 out of 33 two-point field goals while Minnesota shot just 30 percent form that range. The Gophers held a big advantage in three-point shooting, but I don't think that will be the case this time around. In the end, I think it will be the Seminoles and their unique combination of athleticism and shooting ability that prove to be too much for the defensively-challenged Gophers. FSU wins 80-72.