Your Final Four Preview: NIT Style

If you had said two weeks ago that the Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball team would be in the Final Four, any Final Four, NIT or MSHL, there is  a decent chance you would have been fitted for a Houdini extra long.  That is right.  In the home that Dolan has nearly destroyed, historic Madison Square Garden, the Minnesota Golden Gophers will face off against the Washington Huskies.

Against all odds (not really), Tubby’s boys came together and have brought the show on the road like they rarely did all season.  Prior to the Big 10 tournament, the Gophers lone signature road win came against the eventually Sweet 16 bound, Indiana Hoosiers.  In that game, the Gophers displayed a toughness (particularly on the defensive end) that was only seen sporadically throughout the season.

The Big 10 tournament seemed to mark a turning point for this relatively young team.  An “injury” to Captain Fadeaway, Ralph the 3rd, meant significantly increased minutes for improving freshman E2, Elliot Eliason.  Eliason has shown a bit of a mean streak for a down home country boy from Nebraska.  He goes after rebounds like he AND his family AND his priest AND some local orphans have been infected with malaria and those loose basketballs contain the antidote.  He also has displayed a decent array of post moves on the offensive end.  Tomorrow night, he is definitely going to have his hands full with 7′ Junior C, Aziz N’Diaye.  N’Biaye leads the 5th best rebounding attack in the country. The Huskies get after it. E2′s ability to clean the glass is going to be a critical component to any Gophers victory.

Fellow freshman PG, Dre Hollins, has also stepped up his game lately.  He has finally started looking like the answer to the question that has plagued the Gophers since the Bobby Jackson era: who is going to run the offense? When Dre is on the floor, everything runs more smoothly.  That is truly the mark of a good PG.  The spacing is strategic, the timing is more precise, and the overall results are just plain better.  If he continues to dictate the pace, like he did in the three games leading up to this semifinal, Washington’s Abdul Gaddy is going to have HIS hands full.

If E2 and Dre are the youth movement in this recent string of successes, Rodney Williams has been the veteran who may finally be taking THE LEAP.  He has scored 20+ points in every tournament game.  But, even more importantly than that. There have been times when it has actually looked like he might justify the label of being a potential NBA prospect.  It was that label, one he obtained before the season started from local sportswriters, that seemed to have Rod thinking he might be a little better than he was.  There seemed to be an aura of entitlement surrounding him earlier in the season. But, Entitlement Rod appears to have gone the way of the Dodo and VHS tapes. The current version looks hungry.  Like Tibetan UN protestor hungry. If he can continue to produce at the level he has thus far, there is no one in this tournament who can slow him down.

Unlike this example of Darwinian consequence, Rodney Williams has returned from the brink with a vengeance.

With all of that in mind, ultimately, the Gophers success against the Huskies may fall on the elder Hollins. You see, the Huskies best player, SG Terrance Ross, is likely a lottery pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.  Side note, he would actually be a great fit for the Pups, so, here is hoping Utah gets the 8th spot in the playoffs (if the Pups cannot get it), thus giving the Pups the 2012 draft pick they would need to get Ross. If Hollins D’s Ross up and makes it difficult for him to score, this is a Huskie offense that can (and will) stall out.  In all of Washington’s losses, Ross has scored less than 20 points and it is only volume (Kobe-like) shooting that has gotten him into double digits in those games.  That is the kind of game Hollins needs to force Ross into.  Make him uncomfortable.

Based on their performance thus far, this Gophers team seems primed for a little longer run.  Tubby may have finally earned that extension that the administration has been rumored to be working on. The “dream” run has a 5th and final act:

                           Gophers 76  Washington 63

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