MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Gophers aren’t in the NCAA Tournament. Instead in a weird bit of poetry, they’ll play Tubby Smith’s alma mater, High Point, on Tuesday night in the opening round of the NIT at Williams Arena.

When you miss the NCAA Tournament, the questions of how close your program was to getting there are inevitable.

“Yeah, I mean everybody’s going to say, ‘What if Mo (Walker) made the layup versus Northwestern?'” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “That’s the obvious one everyone’s going to say.”

Pitino is referring to the lay-up Walker missed in of the Gophers’ three home Big Ten Conference losses, and ultimately one of the key games they needed to win to earn an NCAA appearance. In Pitino’s first season at Minnesota, he took his team to the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, but not in.

Whether that counts as disappointment, success or progress depends on your perspective. Ask Pitino what he thinks?

“I don’t care if we’re First Four out (or) 50th out,” Pitino said. “I want to be in. I think what it comes down to, bottom line, moving forward, is what we want to get our program to — and every coach does — we don’t want to be on the bubble. Coaches don’t want to be on the bubble. We want to build a program where we’re fighting for a good seed, not a bubble. We understand that’s difficult, we understand that’s going to take time.”

“This is a process that we’ve got to continue to build off of. Like I said, I want to get to the point where we’re not on the bubble, where we’re playing for good seeds. We’re not there yet. So hopefully we learn from this this year and continue to grow and continue to get better,” Pitino said.

The challenge now for Pitino is getting his team ready to play Tuesday night in a tournament that – let’s be honest – nobody ever really wants to play in. That’s except for teams like the Gophers opponent, and that can be dangerous.

“More than anything, as you get into this tournament, who wants to be there, who doesn’t want to be there?” Pitino said. “For High Point, this is a big deal for them. We’ve got to understand that, and we’ve got to be ready to play tomorrow.”

The Gophers are the No. 1 overall seed at the tournament and as long as they win would play up to three games at Williams Arena. The NIT semifinals and finals are held at Madison Square Garden in New York.


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