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Updated: March 13th, 2011 10:47pm
Rejection by NIT ends Gophers' disappointing season

Rejection by NIT ends Gophers' disappointing season

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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The "U" men's basketball team's season has been brought to an unceremonious end.

While their NCAA tournament bubble burst two weeks ago, the Gophers were still aiming for at least an NIT bid.

Just like the season, that hope is gone too. The "U" was denied an invite to the NIT, marking the first time since 1994 that a Tubby Smith coached team will not appear in a post-season tournament.

It is a somewhat fitting end to a season that went from being full of promise to an all-out disaster. After starting the year strong with a 13-5 record, the Gophers fell apart. The "U" lost 10 of their last 11 games to finish 10th in the Big Ten with a 6-12 record and 17-14 overall -- the Gophers' worst season since the Dan Monson era. (To add insult to injury, Long Beach State, which is coached by Monson, made this year's NIT.)

The "U" had a chance stop to its losing skid and possibly solidify an NIT bid against Northwestern in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. What resulted was only a continuation of the inconsistent play and self-inflicted mistakes that plagued the Gophers in the latter part of the season. Following a second-half collapse, the "U" fell 75-65 to the Wildcats, which turned out to be the final game for this year's squad.

With the Big Ten earning seven bids in the NCAA tournament and Northwestern headed to the NIT, the Gophers join Iowa and Indiana as the conference's only teams not in a post-season tournament.

The Gophers will get an early start to the interesting off-season ahead of them. Although the rumors of his departure have again circulated, Tubby Smith appears to be on board for next season. Smith was reported to be close to agreeing to a two-year extension last week. Following the loss to Northwestern, Smith said, semi-jokingly, that he hopes that the offer is still on the table despite this year's end result. 

Junior forward Trevor Mbakwe's status is slightly less certain. Mbakwe's decision of whether he stays for next season or heads to the NBA should be determined within the next two months. Mbakwe put up impressive numbers, racking up 20 double-doubles and leading the Big Ten in rebounds in his first season of eligibility with the Gophers. As Smith has pointed out on occasion, however, he could still use another season of fine-tuning before turning pro.

Guard play remains one of the Gophers' biggest concerns heading into next season. With Blake Hoffarber gone -- the team's only real 3-point threat -- the "U" will have to rely on its underclassmen to fill the void. Freshmen Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin and Austin Hollins showed glimmers of potential this season, but will be expected to take a big step up next year.

Gopher fans will also get their first glimpses of redshirt freshmen Oto Osenieks and Elliot Eliason. Smith has been open with heavy praise for the rapid development Osenieks and Eliason have shown in practice.

The question marks surrounding next year's team are numerous. The "U" will have to forge a new identity without Hoffaber and fellow senior Al Nolen. Smith's staff has an enormous task in front of them as they try to restore stability and faith within the program that was lost during the Gophers' disastrous finish. 

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