Gophers headed to NCAA tournament as No. 11 seed, will face UCLA
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The Gophers may be staggering, but they will still be dancing in March.
Although it has been a season lined with ups and downs, the Gophers (20-12) are headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. Slotted as the 11-seed in the South regional, they will face No. 6 UCLA in the tournament's opening round Friday in Austin, Texas.
"We know that we haven't played well, but we also know it's another opportunity for us to measure ourselves and test ourselves against a very good UCLA Bruins team," coach Tubby Smith said during the team's news conference Sunday night at Williams Arena.
Despite a 5-11 finish, the Gophers entered Sunday knowing in all likelihood they would be hearing their name called. But senior forward Rodney Williams said that didn't prevent a slight feeling uneasiness from settling over the team as they waited to learn their fate.
"There was a little bit of nervousness," said Williams, who appeared notably subdued when addressing the media. "When you're not sure about something and not sure where you're going to be selected and who you're going to play against, there's definitely a little bit of nervousness."
"Once we were called, we were excited. This is a great match-up for us, and another opportunity for us to go out and play."
The bid marks the Gophers' 12th NCAA tournament appearance in program history, three of which have since been nullified due to NCAA-imposed sanctions, and the team's third appearance under coach Tubby Smith.
Kansas is the top seed in the South regional, with Georgetown entering as the No. 2. If the Gophers get past UCLA, it would set up a potential second round match-up with either No. 3 Florida or No. 14 Northwestern State.
Matched up with the Bruins for the first time in 16 years, Minnesota has defeated only UCLA once in their six all-time meetings, but that victory sent the Gophers to the 1997 Final Four (later vacated).
UCLA finished with 25-9 overall record in Ben Howland's 10th year in charge of the team. The Bruins, anchored by widely regarded freshman Shabazz Muhammad, nabbed the Pac-12 regular season title, but were denied by Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament finals.
After traversing a grinding Big Ten schedule, the Gophers are refreshed to meet a team outside of their conference for the first time in 19 games, but understand knocking off the Bruins is still a daunting task.
"It will be somewhat of a breath of fresh air, but at the same time UCLA is a tough team," senior guard Austin Hollins said. "We can't just relax because we're stepping out of our conference, which is a top conference ... They have very talented players, but I think we're going to be able to compete with them, which we know we're capable of."
But the difference between what the Gophers are capable of and how they have performed in recent games has fluctuated rapidly.
Once ranked No. 8 in the nation after a 15-1 start, the Gophers stumbled through a struggle-filled Big Ten season. Illinois' Brandon Paul drilled a shot at the buzzer Thursday to knock Smith's squad out in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, dropping the Gophers to their 11th loss in the last 16 games.
The last-second loss to Illinois left them in a state of shock. Their hot and cold performance was almost a case study of how the season has transpired lately. Turnovers (19), which have been an ongoing hindrance all year, and missed opportunities late in the game erased the Gophers' hard-fought second half comeback.
A layer of disappointment and frustration seems to still be lingering over the team.
"That (last-second shot) takes it out of you, because everything is magnified," Smith said. "It's not like you got beat by 8 or 10. The game was in the balance. We had the lead, and I don't think we've lost the game when we had the lead in the last five minutes ... so it was just a strange scenario, we had a chance to get the rebound and it cost us."
However, a win against UCLA would be a major step toward trying to soften the disappointment of the last two months.
With vacated wins included, the Gophers have not won a game in the tournament since 1997, when the Clem Haskins-led team advanced to the Final Four for the first and only time.
Tubby Smith is 0-2 in the tournament with the Gophers, having not won since his tenure at Kentucky.
Smith, whose job security has come increasingly under fire as the Gophers' late-season slide has gone on, will be facing the possibility of playing for his future with the program. An early exit from the tournament would leave Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague with a weighty decision to make.
By securing an NCAA tournament bid, Smith earned a $100,000 incentive bonus. Under his current deal, he can earn $50,000 bonus for making it to the round of the 32.
Gophers NCAA tournament history
2009-10: L Xavier (65-54)
2008-09: L Texas (72-62)
2004-05: L Iowa State (64-53)
1998-99: L Gonzaga (75-63)
*1996-97: W SW Texas State (78-46)
W Temple (76-57)
W Clemson (90-84, 2OT) - Sweet 16
W UCLA (80-72) - Elite Eight
L Kentucky (78-69) - Final Four
*1994-95: L Saint Louis (64-61, OT)
*1993-94: W Southern Illinois (74-60)
L Louisville (60-55)
1989-90: W Texas-El Paso (64-61, OT)
W Northern Iowa (81-78)
W Syracuse (82-75)
L Georgia Tech (93-91)
1988-89: W Kansas State (86-75)
W Siena (80-67)
L Duke (87-70)
1981-82: W Tennessee-Chattanooga (62-61)
L Louisville (67-61)
1971-72: L Florida State (70-56)
W Marquette (77-72) - NCAA tournament consolation game
*Appearances have been vacated due to NCAA-imposed sanctions