What a difference a week can make--even if that week is spent playing in the 2012 National Inivtational Tournament, as it was for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Just over a week ago, your's truly was pretty depressed about the sad state of the Golden Gophers men's basketball team. I lamented the fact that it has been a decade and a half since their last NCAA tournament win. I compared the Gophers to their mid-major Summit League neighbors instead of their Big Ten brethren. I wondered how many more unlucky injuries and bad bounces the team could endure before it cost their highly touted head coach his job.
This week? Well, let's just say some of that pessimism has washed away.
The Gophers have won two postseason road games in the past week, and they've looked pretty darn good in doing so. They took care of a talented La Salle Explorers squad and manhandled the Miami Hurricanes on their home court. Sure, both victories came in NCAA basketball's version of a big consolation bracket. There's still no getting around the fact that the Gophers had their sights set on the big dance and ultimately fell short. But after a regular season filled with letdowns, it's very refreshing to see them finishing with what has undoubtedly been their best basketball of the year.
The main reason for the Gophers' late surge can best be summed up in two words: Rodney Williams. The junior guard has taken the reigns as the team's best player and hasn't looked back. He has evolved into the go-to scorer that this team has desperately needed for quite some time. Williams has also become the must-see player on a nightly basis--he's good for at least one "Did you see that?!" dunk per game.
But the best part about Rodney Williams' game might be what he hasn't done yet--coming back to Minnesota for his senior season. And barring a huge surprise, coach Tubby Smith will be back to coach Williams for his final year. That continuity combined with the emergence of young players like Joe Coleman and Andre Hollins could finally spell a promising future for a squad that has been so snake bitten in recent years. (It also wouldn't hurt to land coveted Minnesota high school recruit Tyus Jones in order to bolster the team's chances going forward.)
Has that much really changed in the past week? Do two NIT victories mean that much in the grand scheme of things? Of course not. The Gophers still have a lot to do before they can even think about winning their third NIT title. (OK technically their second. They had to vacate their 1998 title--thanks Clem Haskins--but let's not pick nits here.) But if the Gophers can keep their run to New York going on Wednesday night, it might mean quite a bit for their future.