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Updated: March 17th, 2014 7:48pm
Gophers forced to move on, deal with failing to make NCAA tourney

Gophers forced to move on, deal with failing to make NCAA tourney

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- One day after the Minnesota Gophers were left out of the NCAA tournament field, Richard Pitino's squad was faced with a hard truth: they simply did not do enough in the selection committee's eyes to earn a spot in the 68-team field.

Their consolation prize, one that can at times be met with a certain level of apathy from tourney bubble teams, is a No. 1 seed in the NIT and a first round match-up with High Point, the alma mater of former Gophers coach Tubby Smith.

When Pitino and starters Joey King and Austin Hollins met with the media Monday, the refrain from the Gophers was one of disappointment from not hearing their named called, coupled with the go-to statements of being excited to still have a chance to play again.

"Obviously I'm disappointed," Pitino said. "I thought we were close to making the tournament. I would have guessed 40 percent chance at getting in."

It would be unfair to not expect some frustration or sadness from a team that failed to make the NCAA tourney after being within striking distance of securing a bid. After all, the Gophers finished with their second-best regular season record in the last five years (19-12, 20-13 after Big Ten tournament) and a top-10 strength of schedule rating

But Minnesota's exclusion from the Big Dance doesn't warrant the label of a "snub." They were on the verge of putting themselves on the right side of the bubble, but ultimately they fell short.

Pitino gave his reasons for the Gophers' stance on the outside looking in, remarking that some of his team's "quality wins," like victories over Florida State, Iowa and Richmond, stopped looking as good after those opponents struggled in the stretch run of the season.

However, as Pitino admitted, the Gophers failed on multiple prime occasions to bolster their resume. Glaring home losses to Illinois and Northwestern proved to be too much to overcome. They finished with an 8-10 conference record and just two wins against teams with RPI ratings in the top-50.

When a final chance to sway the committee was on the line last week, Minnesota fell apart in the Big Ten tourney against 12th-ranked Wisconsin in a 26-point loss.

The Gophers had been projected as one of the first four teams likely to be left out of the tournament by several national experts. But the selection committee later revealed Minnesota wasn't as close as once thought, not being included among the top-4 teams that were kept off the bracket.

"I don't care if we're the 'first four out,' 50th out. I want to be in or out. I wanted to be in," Pitino said. "Bottom line what it comes down to ... we don't want to be on the bubble. Coaches don't want to be on the bubble. We want to build a good program where we're fighting for a good seed, not a bubble."

He added an interesting remark about his team's nonconference slate: "We played a top-5 schedule in the country, so maybe we don't have to do that, get a little smarter. There's something to be said for that too going forward."

Whether or not Gophers fans want to hear it, Minnesota in many respects overachieved this season, or at the very least met expectations. With a new coach at the helm, only two returning starters and a front court sorely lacking depth, the Gophers, who were widely predicted to finish near the bottom rung of the Big Ten, stayed in contention for a ticket to the Big Dance until the season's final week.

The NIT is not where the Gophers wanted to be. But with that aside, the secondary tournament provides a chance to get an early start on building for next season, even if many fans likely won't check back in with the team until next year.

The question is can Minnesota shake off the aftereffects of having their tourney bubble burst and effectively counter High Point on Tuesday night at Williams Arena?

When the Gophers ended up in the 2012 NIT, they were in the lower half of the field as a six-seed, trying to recover from a late-season collapse. They ultimately ended up going on a run to the championship game in which then-freshman guard Andre Hollins finally started establishing himself as one of the team's top players.

The counter to that is Minnesota's NIT appearance in 2008, Tubby Smith's first season. Hosting Maryland in the first round, the Gophers turned out a disheartening performance in front of a sparse announced crowd of 3,882.

In King's eyes, the Gophers are ready to make a run, regardless of any stigma playing in the NIT may have.

"Of course people were a little disappointed for a second, but that's not something we're going to feel sorry for ourselves about," King said of the team's reaction when it learned its postseaon fate Sunday. "We've made plenty of mistakes and we've accomplished a lot of things at the same time. It's just something we have to fight through, and we're looking forward to playing."

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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