MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota's run to a runner-up finish in the National Invitation Tournament was more than a consolation gift at the end of another up-and-down season under coach Tubby Smith.
The Gophers, save for their lopsided loss to Stanford for the NIT title, finally built some momentum and confidence after a bunch of late-game collapses.
The bonus tournament time mostly brought out the best in the team's standouts, Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams. Joe Coleman began to get back on track following a rough February during which the freshman scored only 21 points over eight games after moving into the starting lineup. Austin Hollins was more consistent. Even backup big man Andre Ingram contributed.
Every player who participated in the NIT this month will be back for 2012-13, plus possibly star Trevor Mbakwe, provided Smith finds a scholarship for him and he stays patient about entering the NBA.
"We've got a great group of kids that do the right things, on and off the court," Smith said Thursday night. "I learned that they are as competitive as any group I've ever coached. And I know about their heart, because they had to overcome a lot of adversity."
Losing Mbakwe to a knee injury in the seventh game of the season was a big blow for the Gophers, who finished 23-15, their most wins since the Final Four team of 15 years ago. This was the greatest number of games ever played by a Minnesota men's basketball team, but also the third-most victories in program history.
All those narrow defeats during Big Ten play might've taken even more of an emotional toll than Mbakwe's absence. They lost in double overtime at Illinois and by five points at Michigan to start conference play, followed by a two-point loss at home to Iowa. The rematch on the road against their rivals brought another blown lead down the stretch and a four-point defeat. They were beaten in overtime by Wisconsin at home and then faltered again in the final seconds, falling to Michigan in overtime in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.
If just half of those games went their way, the Gophers might've been invited to the NCAA tournament rather than sweating out their NIT spot. But given the extra experience these young players gained, they might've been better off this way. After such a sobering loss to Stanford, 75-51, they were clearly bummed. But they still had a grasp of the bigger picture.
"We would be foolish just to go into next season thinking about this one game," Hollins said. "We have come along as a team."
With Hollins and Hollins, Coleman, Julian Welch, Chip Armelin and incoming freshman Wally Ellenson of Rice Lake, Wis., the Gophers have plenty of backcourt depth.
Another recruit, Charles Buggs of Arlington, Texas, will join Williams, Oto Osieneks and maybe Mbakwe in the frontcourt. Elliott Eliason will take over permanently for departing senior Ralph Sampson III at center, and big man Maurice Walker, who redshirted after his recovery from a right knee injury was slow, could be another intimidating presence in the paint. Ingram is an option, too.
So once again, the challenges for the Gophers will be to stay healthy, keep key players from transferring or becoming academically ineligible and to mesh on the court in a way that matches their talent level.
For Minnesota to get back to being a team that wins NCAA tournament games and is capable of periodic legitimate pursuits at the Big Ten title, goals that most fans believed Smith would've reached by now, the coach must settle on a starting five, a rotation and a strategy that's grasped by the players and maximized by their ability.
The fast-break style that Smith has spoken often about wanting to use didn't consistently work to the Gophers' advantage until the postseason. Some players have switched positions. Several different lineup combinations have been used.
Oh, and Smith's contract must be sorted out, too. He has two years left on his original deal, which is worth $2 million annually.
His agent, Ricky Lefft, said Friday he expects discussions with the university about an extension to resume soon. Both Smith and retiring athletic director Joel Maturi said repeatedly over the past year the new deal was imminent, that it was in the hands of the negotiators. But an agreement was never reached, and new President Eric Kaler tabled talks until Maturi's replacement is picked.
"In terms of what they wanted and we wanted, and the whole economic situation of the state, we agreed to just hold on a discussion and continue them at a later time and not race into anything. We wanted certain commitments from them, and they wanted certain commitments from us and we were trying to make all that work," Lefft said in a phone interview.
Lefft said he has a positive relationship with university's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, and expressed optimism about getting the deal done.
Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP