The Minnesota Golden Gophers and Stanford Cardinal are the last two teams standing in the 75th-annual NIT, and will meet tonight at Madison Square Garden for the tournament title.
Tubby Smith can become just the 10th coach in NCAA history to win an NCAA title and NIT title, providing his Golden Gophers successfully complete the task at hand. Minnesota didn't fare all that well in the Big Ten this season, posting a mere 6-12 league ledger, but the team did enough to garner an invite to the NIT, where it has defeated La Salle, Miami-Florida and Middle Tennessee all on the road, before edging out top-seeded Washington, 68-67 OT in the tournament's semifinal round on Tuesday. The Golden Gophers have a rich tradition in this event, sporting a 22-11 record in non-vacated games and a 28-12 record overall. The team won a pair of NIT championships in 1993 and 1998, although the 1998 championship was vacated. This is the fourth NIT championship game appearance for Minnesota all-time (lost to Virginia in 1980).
The Cardinal are 25-11 on the season and played to mixed reviews in the Pac-12 this year. Johnny Dawkins' squad finished seventh in the conference standings at 10-8. Stanford is 6-1 in the month of March however, and is seeking a school-record seventh win this evening. The Cardinal played three straight NIT games at home and posted wins over Cleveland State, Illinois State and Nevada, before handling Massachusetts in the semifinal round on Tuesday, 74-64. With the win over the Minutemen, Stanford improved to 11-4 in the NIT all-time. The Cardinal are seeking their second NIT title, winning the whole thing in 1991.
Minnesota has won all four previous meetings with Stanford. However, it has been 37 years since the school's last met (1975).
Washington went on a 12-4 run with under three minutes to play in regulation and forced overtime against Minnesota on Tuesday, but the Golden Gophers finally got the job done in the extra session, posting the one-point victory. Andre Hollins was instrumental in the win, posting 20 points, including an off-balanced basket in the overtime session to lead the way for Minnesota. The freshman guard was joined in double figures by junior forward Rodney Williams and sophomore guard Austin Hollins, who finished with 18 and 12 points, respectively.
The Golden Gophers are not the most explosive offensive team out there, but they are efficient, converting 46.5 percent from the floor, while putting up 68.1 ppg. Strong defensive play is also an asset for this team, with Minnesota allowing just 64.5 ppg this year and owning a +4.0 rebounding margin. Losing its top player early on to injury (Trevor Mbakwe) and the recent loss of Ralph Sampson III (doubtful/knee) certainly has left the team thin along the frontline. Williams has done his best to handle the brunt of the workload and currently leads the team in both scoring (12.2 ppg) and rebounding (5.6 rpg). Perimeter help comes in the form of Julian Welch (9.6 ppg), Austin Hollins (9.1 ppg) and Andre Hollins (8.9 ppg).
In a game when neither team shot particularly well, the Cardinal were able to keep UMass at bay thanks to advantages both on the boards and at the free- throw line. Stanford grabbed an impressive 54 rebounds compared to 45 for UMass, while holding a 21-13 edge in points from the charity stripe. Anthony Brown led the way offensively, finishing with 18 points. Josh Owens posted a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle posted 13 and 12 points, respectively.
The Cardinal are fueled by a solid inside-out game. Randle and Bright handle things along the perimeter, while Owens takes care of the dirty work down low. Randle, who leads the team at 13.8 ppg, is one of the top three-point shooters in the country, hitting 43.4 percent from beyond the arc. Bright (11.6 ppg) can also fill up the basket from long range, combining with Randle for 151 of the team's 246 total three-pointers. The 6-8 Owens converts a team-best 57.3 percent from the floor and nets 11.8 ppg. He is also the team-leader in rebounding (5.9 rpg) and steals (44).