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Updated: March 28th, 2012 5:16pm
Zulgad's Roundup: Andre Hollins' play is highlight of Gophers' NIT run

Zulgad's Roundup: Andre Hollins' play is highlight of Gophers' NIT run

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Gophers' run to the title game of the NIT men's basketball tournament has created optimism in what otherwise was a disappointing season.

The Gophers opened by going 12-1 in the nonconference portion of their schedule but lost their best player, power forward Trevor Mbakwe, to a knee injury in late November. Tubby Smith's team proceeded to go 6-12 in the Big Ten, finishing in a tie for ninth place with Illinois.

Far too often the Gophers cost themselves with untimely miscues late in games that included both mental and physical errors. Smith spoke often of how much he liked his players as people but wondered if they were simply too nice. Not tough enough.

A 66-61 loss to Michigan State in late February seemed to perfectly sum up the season. Leading late into the second half of the game, the Gophers attempted to drain time off the shot clock when they had the ball.

The problem was that this put them in pressure situations to make shots when the clock was about to expire. Not only did Minnesota not hit several key shots, but the basketball seemed to become a hot potato with no one really wanting to take the crucial chances.

The Gophers' meltdown in conference play caused many to question whether Smith deserved a contract extension. With Smith signed through the 2013-14 season, the overwhelming feeling was the university should wait until a new athletic director was in place this summer before making any decisions.

Smith, though, now has the Gophers set to face Stanford in the title game of the NIT at 6 p.m. Thursday (1500 ESPN) at Madison Square Garden.

The Gophers beat Washington, 68-67, in overtime on Tuesday in the semifinals, giving them four consecutive victories in the tournament and six wins in their past seven games. (It's worth noting the Gophers did blow a 12-point lead in the second half Tuesday.)

The only loss was a 73-69 setback against Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. That's a game the Gophers should have won - something that could be said about many of the team's losses this season.

So what is to be taken from the Gophers' late-season success and NIT road wins over La Salle, Miami and Middle Tennessee State that came before the victory at the Garden? A few thoughts:

• Rodney Williams has looked spectacular at times in this tournament, but if you really want to be excited about one player's performance that guy has to be freshman point guard Andre Hollins.

One of the Gophers' primary problems this season was the fact that they lacked a point guard who could take control. Julian Welch and Maverick Ahanmisi were used at the spot, but Hollins was the guy that Smith wanted to take the job.

Hollins, in his defense, was slowed by ankle and hip injuries and could never find a rhythm. That is no longer the case, and Hollins' performance of late makes him look as if he will be the Gophers' unquestioned floor leader next season.

He had 20 points and five assists in Tuesday's victory and is averaging 17.7 points, five rebounds and 3.5 assists in the NIT. Most importantly, Hollins is proving himself at crucial moments.

He went through three defenders en route to scoring what proved to be the winning basket in overtime against Washington and accounted for 11 of the Gophers final 13 points.

That's the exact type of clutch play that Smith's team lacked when it mattered during Big Ten games. If we're now seeing the real Andre Hollins, the Gophers are going to be in fine shape at the point in 2012-13.

• Williams had four consecutive games with 20 points before collecting 18 points and nine rebounds on Tuesday. This has caused excitement among many who have witnessed Williams use his God-given athletic ability to appear dominant at times late in the season.

But when it comes to Williams' recent performances, the word caution comes to mind. In other words, let's see what he does next season when Big Ten play begins.

Remember, the 6-7, 200-pound Williams looked pretty good in the nonconference season after replacing Mbwake at the power forward. There is no question that if he gets the right matchup, Williams can make life miserable for the opponent.

The issue for Williams was when he got into conference play. When the potential existed that going inside would be very difficult and the style of play would resemble Big Ten football, there were many times Williams seemed happy to stay away from the basket.

That has to change before Williams truly lives up to his potential and gets NBA scouts excited about him.

The x-factor in all of this is whether Mbwake comes back next season for the sixth-year of eligibility he has been granted. If that happens, then Mbwake could play the power forward, Williams would move to small forward and Elliott Eliason would be the center.

This could put Williams in a situation where he wouldn't have to worry about going inside as much, but he is still going to have to work to avoid any and all mental lapses. Scouts will be watching this closely.

Bottom line: If Williams is really going to be a complete player he will come back next season willing to take a pounding, and give one, in all games, including the ones where it's not pleasant. He also will remain engaged in what's going on for the entire 40 minutes.

• This is going to seem harsh, but one has to wonder if Smith made an error in not benching Ralph Sampson III at some point this season.

Maybe long ago.

Sampson hasn't played in the NIT because of a knee injury and the senior almost certainly won't be in the lineup on Thursday. Smith has made this sound as if it's Sampson's decision, but there is no debating that this is a different team without him on the floor.

The Gophers have gone 8-1 in games Sampson has sat out this season, including non-conference victories over Virginia Tech and Southern Cal.

Eliason is a redshirt freshman who is listed at 6-11, 260 pounds. The impressive thing is he appears as if he has plenty of room to get stronger.

The difference with him is that right now he has no fear of using his strength and size to bang inside with the other bigs. Sampson is listed at 6-11, 241 pounds, but he has never played like that and likely never will.

Sampson's preference is to play away from the basket as much as possible. He also rarely carried himself with any sense of authority, thereby never providing the presence and confidence that someone his size can bring to a team.

At this point, it would be hard to blame Smith if he was the one making the decision to hold out Sampson.

The NIT is serving much like a second-tier bowl game for the Gophers in that it has allowed them to play and practice together for a few additional weeks. In this case, Smith is smart to keep every ounce of focus on developing his roster for next season and Sampson isn't going to be a part of that roster.

• Finally, what about Smith's contract situation? Does he deserve an extension?

Although his name again has been tied to openings at other schools - this time at South Carolina (that job has been filled by Frank Martin) and Tulsa - university president Eric Kaler is wise to take the approach of waiting until a new athletic director has been hired before anything is done.

The reason to extend Smith sooner rather than later is all tied to recruiting, and the security incoming players would feel, but that isn't a good enough reason to tell a prospective AD that his football and basketball coaches are now signed long term and any key decisions on those jobs won't come until their contracts have expired or they are fired.

The theory was that Smith's extension was going to be done long ago and that still isn't the case.

That means that even if the Gophers win the NIT the best approach will be to let the new athletic director play a key role on making a decision about where this program is headed when it comes to the head coach.

A good feeling

There was some grumbling in October when Gophers hockey coach Don Lucia received a three-year contract extension that will take him through the 2014-15 season.

Lucia led the Gophers to back-to-back national titles in 2002 and 2003, but had missed the NCAA tournament the past three seasons. That was considered unforgiveable by some who expect that the Gophers will make a yearly appearance in the tournament.

For now, Lucia's detractors appear to be his fans again as he has guided his team back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005. The Gophers beat Boston University and North Dakota last weekend at the Xcel Energy Center to earn a ticket to hockey's final four, which will be held April 5 and 7 in Tampa, Fla.

"It feels good," Lucia said when asked about the level of satisfaction. "I've always said, I'm very appreciative of Joel (Maturi, the Gophers athletic director) and (former university) President (Bob) Bruininks for showing the faith. Even though the people I think at times felt we were light years away from where we needed to be, I never felt that way. I've been doing this a long time. I thought we were close.

"Even a year ago we finished the WCHA 15-9 and two or three, or whatever it was, with a young group and I thought that we had a chance to be better this year. I can't tell you that I expected to win the MacNaughton Cup (as the WCHA regular-season champions). I can't tell you I expected to be in the Frozen Four this year.

"But I felt confident that we could get back to an NCAA tournament if things went our way. I think they did. The kids have worked hard, our staff has worked hard, so it is rewarding. There is no question."

Cracking down

One of the most refreshing things coming from the Twins spring training base in Fort Myers, Fla., this month has been the lack of B.S. that general manager Terry Ryan apparently has been willing to put up with.

Middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka was quickly dispatched to Class AAA Rochester after failing to prove he had made sufficient progress during the offseason, and there seems to be a growing frustration with what's going on with Scott Baker and his sore arm.

With Ryan not holding back, this has enabled manager Ron Gardenhire to also question things that need to be questioned. That didn't happen a year ago and served as a precursor to the Twins' 99 loss season.

About the only player who appears to be calling his own shots right now is Justin Morneau and there is good reason for this. Morneau has been battling concussions the past two years and thus, after consulting with doctors, it appears he is more comfortable serving as a designated hitter, rather than trying to play first base.

Ryan and Gardenhire might want Morneau to play first, but they are in a tough situation, given it has been proven how little most of us know about concussion-symptoms and how long they can end up sidelining a player.

So if Mornaeu wants to DH, that's what he is going to do.

And that might not be a bad thing.

If Morneau is the Twins' regular DH, this likely will mean Chris Parmelee will get a chance at first. It also means that on days he doesn't catch, Joe Mauer can play first base and Ryan Doumit can work behind the plate.

Mauer has given no indication this spring that the variety of ailments that slowed him last season remain an issue and that's a great thing. The Twins are going to need him to play often and they are going to need him to be in the field as much as possible.

Morneau is talking about trying to play 162 games, after being limited to 69 in 2011.

He should be commended for this, but given his concussion issues - not to mention the fact he had neck, wrist, knee and foot surgeries in the past year - it's a lot more realistic to expect Mauer to approach playing on a near daily basis.

And if that means several of those games come at first base, then so be it.

Quick hit

• Todd McShay, one of ESPN's draft experts, has the Vikings selecting Southern Cal left tackle Matt Kalil with the third pick in the April draft. McShay then has the Cleveland Browns taking wide receiver Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers grabbing running back Trent Richardson of Alabama. Quarterbacks Andrew Luck of Stanford and Robert Griffin III of Baylor are the top two picks, of course, going to Indianapolis and Washington, respectively.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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