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Updated: March 20th, 2012 5:42pm
Sandell: NIT is serving its purpose for Gophers men's basketball team

Sandell: NIT is serving its purpose for Gophers men's basketball team

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

In a season of staggering highs and lows, the Gophers men's basketball team has been an at times cringe-worthy and infuriating squad to watch.

That has changed, however, in the span of three weeks.

It's not the postseason run one had in mind at the onset of the season, but the Gophers are using the NIT -- the NCAA tourney's oft-forgotten stepchild -- to its full advantage. Impressive defeats on the road of La Salle and Miami have coach Tubby Smith's team one victory from a trip to the Big Apple.

Though the wait has been excruciating, the Gophers are in the midst of their strongest showing of the year. Since their regular-season finale dismantling of Nebraska, they have used their suddenly consistent and fun-to-watch offense to average 74.6 points in a five-game stretch -- seven points higher than their season average -- and have outrebounded their opponent in all five of those match-ups. .

Yes, the sample-size is small, but after a Big Ten campaign ripe with missed opportunities, it is a welcomed reprieve for the "U" to find a ray of success even if it has come when expectations have been lowered and many onlookers have lost interest.

Selling the benefits of an NIT resurgence to a disenchanted fan base is a no-win proposition. A glance at past tournaments, though, shows secondary postseason success in many cases is the jumpstart a program needs.

Seven of the last 10 NIT champions and runner-ups have earned a bid to the NCAA tourney the following season, with three of those teams advancing to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight (North Carolina, 2011; Baylor, 2010; West Virginia, 2008).

The Gophers still must win two more games, starting with their quarterfinals match-up Wednesday at Middle Tennessee (6 p.m. 1500 ESPN) to be in consideration for adding their name to that list. Regardless, glimmers of potential -- the buzzword that has the tendency to create unwarranted hype -- are gradually surfacing after spending the season teetering on the edge of obscurity.

Situated at the forefront of their late push is Rodney Williams. Only one of his 10 shots missed its mark in Monday's 78-60 second round rout of a disinterested Miami squad as the junior forward put up 21 points . He reached the 20-point threshold for the third straight game, making him the first "U" player to do so since Dan Coleman in 2007.

"I feel like I've been a little bit more consistent lately," Williams told reporters Monday night. "The guys have been giving me the ball in the right spots. I was feeling good."

Consistency -- a fleeting trait for the highlight reel stalwart -- is what will separate the Gophers from ending their two-year NCAA tournament drought next season or another year spent watching the Madness with the masses. There is little ground on which to deny Williams is critical to turning the team's sporadic "potential" into a steady supply of wins, especially with Trevor Mbakwe's unlikely hopes of a sixth-year sitting at the mercy of an eligibility committee.

Williams' recent takeover -- 16.8 points, a 58.5 shooting percentage (41-of-70) and 6.6 rebounds in the last six games -- surpasses basic stats. His outburst is helping to create openings for his teammates, who are capitalizing as well.

Freshman guard Andre Hollins, with the first-year blues and lingering injuries behind him, is benefiting from the Gophers' prolonged season more than any other name on the roster. Given the reigns by Smith, Hollins appears fully aware the go-to role he will be expected to adopt next season as he has been an unyielding spark at the point, scoring in double-figures in six straight games.

Williams and Hollins, along with an upgraded output from their supporting cast, is the reason the "U" are primed for its third NIT title. Back-to-back collapses in February appear to have finally rallied the Gophers towards grasping their chance at softening the sting of a previously derailed season.

Injury update

· Redshirt freshman forward Oto Osenieks received an unfortunate birthday present from Miami's Reggie Johnson. The freshly minted 22-year-old Osenieks collided headfirst with the Hurricanes' big man in a second half scramble for the ball. Moments later, he collapsed in a state of dizziness in front of the Gophers' bench. Osenieks, who maintained consciousness, did not reenter the game. Smith remarked afterwards that Osenieks is 'fine', but may be questionable for Wednesday's game.

· Will Ralph Sampson III's collegiate career end on the bench? That seems to be the likely conclusion as a right knee injury has kept the senior center out since the Gophers' March 3 win over Nebraska. Sampson has practiced with the team for the last week, but his warm-ups have remained on come game-time.

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