NIT 2012: How Minnesota Has Burst into Final Without Trevor Mbakwe

Ryan RudnanskySenior Writer IMarch 29, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 27: Desmond Simmons #30 of the Washington Huskies (bottom) loose's control of the ball while being defended by Andre Hollins #1 of the Minnesota Golden Golphers in the second half during the semifinals of the NIT men's basketball championship at Madison Square Garden on March 27, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Jason Szenes/Getty Images)
Jason Szenes/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers weren't supposed to do anything this season.

They lost their star forward, Trevor Mbakwe, seven games into their campaign and were forced to continue against top Big Ten competition as if it didn't matter.

But while Minnesota didn't make it into the NCAA tournament, finishing with a 19-14 overall record, the Golden Gophers are certainly smiling now.

That's because this ragtag group of characters has fought its way to the NIT tournament final, set to play Stanford on Thursday.

But how has Minnesota done it? The team doesn't have an exceptional amount of talent, after all.

Well, part of the reason is forward Rodney Williams, who has erupted in the tournament. The junior forward has averaged 21 points while shooting 61 percent from the field in four NIT tournament games. And don't forget his ability to be a difference-maker on the defensive end. Williams has averaged 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks this season.

But, obviously, Minnesota has needed multiple contributions during its run. Freshman guard Andre Hollins, for one, has emerged. He has averaged 17.7 points in the tournament and has gotten to the free-throw line 15 times in the past two games.

Even freshman center Elliott Eliason has stepped up for the Golden Gophers, collecting 15 rebounds in the past two games.

There's also the team defense, which has forced 35 turnovers in the last two games.

But beyond all of this, perhaps the biggest reason Minnesota is battling for the NIT crown on Thursday is that this team never gives up. The Golden Gophers did, after all, beat Indiana in the regular season. They also lost to Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan by seven points or fewer during the season. In the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, they took the Spartans into overtime. Against favorite Washington on Tuesday, they came back from a 15-point, first-half deficit, forcing the game into overtime and ultimately winning the game.

Head coach Tubby Smith may have explained Minnesota's run best. Smith said, after Tuesday's thrilling victory, via ESPN, "It's one of the hardest-working groups of kids I've ever worked with."

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