New York Colleges: Minnesota Golden Gophers

NEW YORK -- Imagine being in just your second year in your chosen profession, and having the chance to compete against one of the very best to ever do the job.

That was Richard Pitino's opportunity on Thursday at Madison Square Garden. And, even better, he came out on top.

In just his second year as a head coach, Pitino guided his Minnesota Golden Gophers to the 2014 NIT championship, defeating Larry Brown's Southern Methodist Mustangs 65-63.

“Obviously extremely happy for our guys to win a championship,” Pitino said. “I’m really, really happy for them that they get to walk off [the] Madison Square Garden court as winners.”

[+] EnlargeRichard Pitino,  Rick Pitino
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II"It meant a lot - not just my dad, but my whole family [being here]," Pitino said after Thursday's NIT triumph. "This is hopefully just the beginning for me."
It was a highly entertaining game, featuring two of the NIT’s four No. 1 seeds. There were 14 ties and 17 lead changes, and neither team led by more than seven.

We saw good performances from several players. Austin Hollins scored 19 for Minnesota, including a huge 3-pointer in the final minute. Nic Moore had 17 points and seven assists for SMU.

But the real stars were the coaches: Brown, the 73-year-old inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, and Pitino, the 31-year-old son of Rick Pitino, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame just seven months ago.

And the game came down to a coaching decision, in effect. With Minnesota leading 65-62 and 4.8 seconds left, SMU had the ball with a chance to tie. Pitino wouldn’t let that happen. He instructed his team to foul before an SMU player had a chance to attempt a game-tying 3-pointer.

Instead, the Mustangs' Nick Russell missed his first free throw (when he was trying to make it), and made his second (when he was trying to miss it), and Minnesota was able to run out the clock from there.

“Got to give a lot of credit to Richard and his team,” Brown said. “They were really well prepared. Got down seven and I thought he got their kids to dig in.”

Brown is the only coach ever to win both an NCAA championship and an NBA title. But it is Pitino, not Brown, who now has an NIT championship on his résumé.

It would have been a mere footnote in terms of Brown’s legacy. But it’s a significant step for Pitino, given this was his first year at Minnesota, following one year as head coach at Florida International.

Throw in the fact that his father and mother and several other family members were sitting right behind the Minnesota bench, and it’s a memory he will surely treasure.

And not just him.

“I almost feel like crying, I’m so elated with joy,” the elder Pitino said, amid the on-court celebration.

“It meant a lot -- not just my dad, but my whole family [being here],” Richard Pitino said. “This is hopefully just the beginning for me.”

After the Golden Gophers finished cutting down the net, the players and coaches did not immediately head back to the locker room. Instead, Pitino gathered everyone together for one final huddle.

Later, Pitino was asked why he did it, and what he said.

“I just thought for our seniors ... [there’s] something special about walking off the court a winner and ending your career that way,” he said. “[And] I told the guys coming back, I’m so fired up to get back to work.”

The truth is, he was already back to work, mere minutes after this season had ended.

Here’s guessing this won’t be the last net he cuts down.

W2W4: SMU vs. Minnesota

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
Here's what to watch for when Southern Methodist (27-9, 12-6 AAC) plays Minnesota (24-13, 8-10 Big Ten) on Thursday in the NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden.

Tipoff is at 7 p.m., and you can watch the game on ESPN.

ONE FOR THE AGES ... The two head coaches are the star attractions in this matchup. It'll be the oldest coach in Division I, Hall of Famer Larry Brown of SMU, versus one of the youngest coaches in Div. I, Richard Pitino of Minnesota -- the son of Hall of Famer Rick Pitino.

Brown is 73 years old, although he certainly doesn't look it. Pitino is 31, and looks every bit of it and no more.

Both have New York roots. Brown was born in Brooklyn and returned to New York to coach the Knicks in 2005-06. Pitino spent part of his youth in New York -- his father coached the Knicks from 1987-89. The elder Pitino attended the semifinals Tuesday and almost certainly will be sitting behind the Minnesota bench again Thursday.

AS FOR THE PLAYERS ... It's a pretty even matchup -- these are two of the four No. 1 seeds in this tournament. SMU overcame a 13-point, second-half deficit to defeat Clemson 65-59 in Tuesday's first semifinal. Minnesota survived a second-half comeback to beat Florida State 67-64 in overtime in the second semifinal.

You should see strong guard play in this game. SMU's leading scorer is sophomore point man Nic Moore (13.5 ppg, 4.8 apg). Minnesota has three guards who average in double figures -- junior Andre Hollins (13.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg), senior Austin Hollins (12.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and junior DeAndre Mathieu (12 ppg, 4.1 apg).

But the X-factor is SMU sophomore forward Markus Kennedy (12.4 ppg, 7 rpg). A transfer from Villanova, Kennedy was dominant in the semifinals, with 21 points and nine rebounds against Clemson. Minnesota must try to limit his touches inside.

SPEAKING OF DEFENSE ... SMU is one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranked seventh in Division I in defensive field goal percentage (38.3). Minnesota isn't as good but is still ranked among the top third of Div. I teams in that category, currently 112th (42.4).

That being said, both teams can create havoc on that end. SMU was 42nd in steals per game in the regular season (7.5), and Minnesota was close behind at 45th (7.4).

You'll probably see some full-court pressure, particularly from Minnesota. Taking care of the ball will be critical in this game.

W2W4: The NIT semifinals

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
Larry BrownAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesLarry Brown returns to the Garden for the NIT semifinals.
NEW YORK -- Here's what to watch for in Tuesday's semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Tipoff is at 7 p.m. ET, and you can watch the games on ESPN2.

HOME SWEET HOME: Brooklyn native and former Knicks coach Larry Brown returns to the Garden and should receive a warm welcome.

The 73-year-old Hall of Famer has rejuvenated the Southern Methodist basketball program in just two years at the helm. The Mustangs were 13-19 in 2011-12, prior to Brown's arrival. This season they have won 26 games, the second-most in school history.

SMU was the first team left out of the NCAA tournament field, and received one of four No. 1 seeds in the NIT.

When asked last week about returning to New York, Brown said, “I don’t look at it like that, for me. For me, for our kids to have an opportunity to keep playing is great.

"I’m happy for our team, I’m thrilled for our program. After the disappointment we had [Selection Sunday], this is a privilege to still be playing.”

GAME 1: SMU (26-9, 12-6 AAC) will play No. 3 seed Clemson (23-12, 10-8 ACC) in the first semifinal. The Mustangs finished tied for third in the American Athletic Conference with Final Four participant UConn, and beat the Huskies twice in the regular season. The Tigers, in their fourth year under coach Brad Brownell, finished sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Their best win of the season was a 72-59 triumph over Duke at home on Jan. 11.

Two players average in double figures for SMU -- sophomore point guard Nic Moore (13.5 PPG, 4.9 APG) and sophomore forward Markus Kennedy (12.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG). Clemson has just one double-figure scorer -- junior forward K.J. McDaniels (17.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG). McDaniels was also the leading shot-blocker in the ACC (2.8 BPG).

The Mustangs are 18th in Division I in offensive field goal percentage (48.4), and seventh in defensive field goal percentage (38.2) -- quite a combination! The Tigers aren't nearly as good offensively, ranking 265th (42.4). But they are almost as good defensively, ranking 14th (39.3).

GAME 2: A pair of No. 1 seeds, Minnesota (23-13, 8-10 Big Ten) and Florida State (22-13, 9-9 ACC), will meet in the second semifinal, tipping off at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET. The Golden Gophers, in their first year under coach Richard Pitino (Rick's son), finished seventh in the Big Ten. The Seminoles, in their 12th year under coach Leonard Hamilton, finished tied for seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

These two teams met back on Dec. 3 in Minneapolis, with Minnesota winning 71-61. But the Golden Gophers' leading rebounder, junior center Elliott Eliason (5.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG), is likely out for this game due to an ankle injury, as reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Three players average in double figures for Minnesota -- junior guard Andre Hollins (13.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG), senior guard Austin Hollins (12.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG) and junior guard DeAndre Mathieu (11.8 PPG, 4.1 APG).

Three players average in double figures for Florida State, as well -- sophomore guard Aaron Thomas (14.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG), senior guard Ian Miller (13.7 PPG, 2.9 APG) and senior forward Okaro White (13.5 PPG, 6.6 RPG).

The Seminoles also stack up very well on both sides, ranking 49th in Division I in offensive field goal percentage (46.8) and 25th in defensive field goal percentage (39.9). The Golden Gophers trail significantly in both categories, ranking 142nd offensively (44.8) and 116th defensively (42.5).

Stanford routs Minnesota in NIT final

March, 29, 2012

Stanford and Minnesota had the college basketball stage all to themselves Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, two days before the NCAA Final Four.

The Cardinal put on a heck of a show, pummeling the Golden Gophers 75-51 to win the 75th annual National Invitation Tournament.

Stanford, under fourth-year coach Johnny Dawkins, finishes the season 26-11 -- the program's most victories since 2008, the last time the Cardinal made the NCAA tournament.

"This season has been a little bit of a roller coaster ride for us," said Dawkins. "I thought our kids saved the best for last. They played a terrific game from start to finish."

The game was close for most of the first half, the two teams tied at 21 with less than six minutes remaining before intermission. That's when Stanford's Aaron Bright connected on a 3-pointer and was fouled in the process.

The ensuing free throw made it 25-21 with 5:28 remaining.

The Cardinal led 31-25 at halftime, and then scored the first nine points of the second half to make it 40-25. That, in effect, was the knockout blow. Minnesota never recovered.

Stanford led by as many as 30, and the final few minutes of the game were nothing but garbage time.

"We’ve had good runs before," said Dawkins, "but never on a stage of this magnitude, playing for a championship."

Bright and fellow guard Chasson Randle scored 15 points apiece for Stanford, with Bright being named the tournament's most outstanding player.

Rodney Williams led three Minnesota players in double figures with 12 points before fouling out.

"We didn’t do a good job taking care of the ball," said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, whose team had 22 turnovers on the night. "We missed, I thought, some easy baskets in the first half. … When you’re missing those shots like that, you get a little frustrated.

"A lot of it had to do with Stanford, and their intensity."

"I thought we did a good job in transition of making them a half-court team," said Dawkins. "Our identity all year long has been to defend, defend, defend. We preached it so much, and I’m just happy to see the kids have success."

After starting the season 10-1 (with the only loss coming against Syracuse, by just six points, also at Madison Square Garden), Stanford lost five of six games from mid-January to early February, and ended up finishing seventh in a weak Pac-12.

But the Cardinal finished the season on a high note, and have reason to feel good about the future. Bright is a sophomore, Randle a freshman, and some other key contributors are underclassmen as well.

"We have a really good core group of young kids that really stepped up throughout this tournament," said Dawkins. "I think they’ve grown up this year, and that’s exciting for our future."

"We know what it takes to win a tournament now," said Bright. "I think we can use this experience for next year, and making a run at March Madness."

As for Minnesota, its final game was very disappointing. But the Golden Gophers, a No. 6 seed in this tournament, won three straight road games to get to the Big Apple, and then beat Washington in overtime in the semifinals two nights ago.

Minnesota finished 23-15 overall, tied for ninth in the Big Ten, but suffered a big blow just seven games into the season when leading scorer Trevor Mbakwe suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the rest of the campaign.

Smith will lose just one senior from this team -- starting center Ralph Sampson III, who also missed the NIT due to injury. And it appears likely Mbakwe will be back after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.

"I learned that they’re as competitive as any group I’ve ever coached," said Smith, when asked what he learned about his team in this tournament. "And I know about their heart, because we had to overcome a lot of adversity.

"I’m just glad we have 'em all coming back, that’s the best thing."

Both teams are looking forward to brighter things in 2012-2013. But only one will be able to look back at an NIT title.

"They’re champions forever," said Dawkins of his 2011-2012 Stanford squad. "That’s something that no one will ever be able to take away from them."

Rapid Reax: Stanford 75, Minnesota 51

March, 29, 2012

NEW YORK -- A quick take on Stanford's 75-51 win over Minnesota on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

WHAT IT MEANS: Stanford wins the 75th annual National Invitation Tournament -- its second NIT championship, after also winning the title back in 1991.

The Cardinal become the 17th team to win multiple NITs. This also marks Stanford's first win over Minnesota in five meetings all time.

Stanford finishes its season 26-11, while Minnesota wraps up at 23-15.

TURNING POINT: This game was tied up at 21 with less than six minutes to go in the first half. That's when Stanford went on an 8-0 run, ignited by a four-point play by Aaron Bright. The Cardinal led 31-25 at intermission.

The real turning point was the first four minutes of the second half, when Stanford exploded on a 9-0 run to make it 40-25. Jarrett Mann, Anthony Brown and Andrew Zimmerman contributed the points during that stretch, which proved to be a knockout blow. This one got out of hand early -- the Cardinal led by as many as 30, and the last several minutes was nothing but garbage time.

KEY PLAYER: Stanford got a well-rounded team effort on Thursday night, but the guards led the way. Freshman Chasson Randle had a game-high 15 points, making three of his five attempts from beyond the 3-point arc. And Bright, a sophomore, also scored 15 off the bench, and was named the tournament's most outstanding player.

KEY STAT: Stanford shot 50 percent from the field (29-for-58), while Minnesota shot just 37.3 percent (19-for-51). Also, Minnesota had 22 turnovers.

WHAT'S NEXT: The college basketball season at the Garden has officially come to a close. We'll see you back here in November.

Enjoy the Final Four, everyone.

W2W4: Stanford vs. Minnesota

March, 29, 2012
Here are three things to watch for when Stanford (25-11, 10-8 Pac-12) takes on Minnesota (23-14, 6-12 Big Ten) on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

Tip-off is at 7 p.m., and you can watch the game on ESPN, or via ESPN3.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: The championship of the 75th annual National Invitation Tournament. These two teams are among the final eight Division I teams in action this season. Pittsburgh will host Washington State in the championship game of the College Basketball Invitational on Friday night. Then the Final Four gets under way on Saturday.

Stanford, a No. 3 seed in the NIT, won three home games to get to New York (against Cleveland State, Illinois State and Nevada), and then defeated Massachusetts 74-64 in the semifinals on Tuesday night at MSG.

Minnesota, a No. 6 seed in the NIT, won three road games to get to New York (against LaSalle, Miami and Middle Tennessee), and then defeated Washington 68-67 in overtime in the semifinals on Tuesday night at MSG.

THE CARDINAL: Stanford got off to a 10-1 start this season, its only loss coming versus Syracuse, 69-63 at Madison Square Garden on the day after Thanksgiving. But then it lost five of six games from mid-January to early February, finished seventh in the Pac-12 standings, and lost to California in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.

The Cardinal, coached by former Duke guard and assistant coach Johnny Dawkins, have three players who average in double figures: 6-foot-1 freshman guard Chasson Randle (13.8 ppg, .434 3P%), 6-foot-8 senior forward Josh Owens (11.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and 5-foot-11 sophomore guard Aaron Bright (11.6 ppg, 3.6 apg).

Stanford is 39th in Division I in 3-point field goal percentage (37.7), and 42nd in rebound margin (+4.6 per game). But it is 202nd in turnovers per game (13.8), and 257th in free throw percentage (66.5).

THE GOLDEN GOPHERS: Minnesota began the season 12-1, but lost its leading scorer, Trevor Mbakwe, to a torn in ACL in the team's seventh game of the season -- obviously a big blow. It then lost four straight games right after Christmas, and six in a row in February, finishing tied for ninth in the Big Ten with Illinois, and losing to Michigan in overtime in the conference tournament quarterfinals.

The Gophers, led by former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, have just one player currently averaging in double figures: 6-foot-7 junior forward Rodney Williams (12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg); 6-foot-3 junior guard Julian Welch, 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Austin Hollins and 6-foot-1 freshman guard Andre Hollins (no relation) chip in 9.6, 9.1 and 8.9 points per game, respectively.

Minnesota is 26th in the country in blocked shots per game (4.9), and 31st in assists per game (15.1). But it is 239th in 3-point field goals per game (5.4), and 245th in turnovers per game (14.5).

One final note: Tubby Smith is trying to become the 10th coach to win both an NCAA tournament title and an NIT title. That list currently includes Adolph Rupp, Al McGuire, Dean Smith, Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun.