NEW YORK – Lorenzo Romar could only smile at the thought. Sure, Romar is a man of many smiles. But behind this particular grin was one of accomplishment, achievement and pride.
When the Huskies take the floor tonight at Madison Square Garden for a National Invitation Tournament semifinal against Minnesota, it will be a better team than took the same floor earlier this season. It’s been 26 games and a little over three months since this team was here playing on basketball’s biggest stage against two of the country’s best programs in Marquette and Duke.
While there were several hints of what the Huskies could be this season in the two close losses, Romar left New York and Madison Square Garden with more questions than answers.
Unsure might be the best way to describe the team at that point.
“We were not sure,” Romar said. “We weren’t sure of our roles. We weren’t sure how to win close games. We weren’t sure how to win on the road.”
Since then, Romar and his team experienced championship highs and heartbreaking lows. The Huskies looked like an NCAA tournament team, won the Pacific-12 Conference regular-season title, then played their way out of a bid.
And yet, progress was made. It’s indicative of how the team has played during the NIT, moving past the disappointment and finding its motivation to make the games important.
“It’s a totally different team now,” Romar said.
It’s different in a good way. Roles have been defined. There is an understanding of what needs to be done in practice and in games for success, particularly on defense. There’s a business-like maturity to the team.
The experience of being passed over by the NCAA tournament selection committee and finding a way to refocus for the NIT has made the team better.
Romar likened it to telling a young child not to touch a hot stove.
“They still do it,” Romar said. “There are just some experiences that some teams have to go through.”
Those experiences have changed the team.
“We’ve learned a lot through the season, through the ups and downs,” junior point guard Abdul Gaddy said. “You almost have to experience both.”
Now, it’s simple. The Huskies know how to play. Romar doesn’t have to overcoach and try to use timeouts to get them out of trouble. They can do it on their own.
“We are just playing right now,” Gaddy said. “We are playing well. We are flourishing.”
Romar can see it in the little things.
“Our practices the last week have been the best we’ve had all year,” Romar said.
Now that the Huskies are in New York, the goal is to win the title.
“We have a championship on the line,” senior forward Darnell Gant said. “We can do something.”
To do that, the Huskies will have to beat a young Minnesota team that has overcome the loss of leading scorer Trevor Mbakwe seven games into the season and the peril of playing in a tough Big Ten Conference.
The Golden Gophers won three NIT games on the road to get to the semifinals.
The Gophers, under coach Tubby Smith, will likely start four underclassmen tonight. On paper, Washington should have the decided advantage. Even Smith acknowledges that.
“They have the total package,” Smith said. “They’ve got inside-outside, a great shot-blocker (Aziz N’Diaye). They’ve got (Terrence) Ross, who can score in a number of different ways. They’ve got guys coming off the bench. And they’ve got good balance. They remind me a lot of Ohio State. They are like Ohio State, in my opinion. They can challenge you at the rim, they can throw the ball inside and finish. They’ve got the outside perimeter shooting, they’ve got a good point guard (Gaddy) that really runs the show well.”
High praise, comparing the Huskies to a team in the Final Four the NCAA tournament, while they are in the final four of the NIT.
For the Gophers to have success, they will have to defend. It’s what they do best. They’ve held opponents to 64.4 points per game this season.
“They are very, very tenacious,” Romar said. “They will pick you up full court and they are just constantly there.”
And if you do get by the first defender, there will be another waiting.
“They do a good job of help defense,” Gaddy said. “They are good in their rotations.”
But it won’t be anything Washington hasn’t seen before. The Huskies have seen it all this season.
“We know what it takes,” freshman guard Tony Wroten said. “We’ve been there before, and we know what we have to do.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports
MINNESOTA (22-14) VS. WASHINGTON (24-10)
National invitation tournament SEMIFINALS
6 p.m., Madison Square Garden
TV: ESPN2. Radio: 950-AM/102.9-FM
Series: The last time these two met was in the early 1990s when they played a home-and-home series in 1990 and 1991. Minnesota won at home and UW won in Seattle a year later. The two teams have played 15 times, with Washington holding a 9-6 advantage. Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar has never coached against Minnesota, while Gophers coach Tubby Smith has never coached against Washington.
Scouting report: The Gophers are going to play defense. That’s what teams coached by Tubby Smith do – defend, and defend with great effort and intensity. They are holding teams to 64.4 points per game this season. On paper, Minnesota doesn’t have the talent to match up with Washington, particularly if center Ralph Sampson III’s sore left knee keeps him out of yet another game. Smith said Sampson will be a game-time decision. He has practiced but lacks the ability to really push off the knee. The Gophers rely heavily on junior forward Rodney Williams and guard tandem of brothers Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins. The trio accounts for the bulk of Minnesota’s offensive production. Willliams can score in a variety of ways, and is probably the Gophers’ best overall athlete. He is averaging 22 points per game during the NIT. Andre Hollins was named to the Big 10 all-tournament team and is averaging 17 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists per game in the NIT. Besides Sampson’s injury, reserve forward Oto Osoneiks is also likely to miss the game with a concussion, meaning that Smith will probably use only seven players, maybe eight. Starting power forward Trevor Mbakwe, the team’s leading scorer (14.0), is out for the season after hurting his knee in November.
Next: Winner plays in the NIT championship at 4 p.m. Thursday.
Ryan Divish, staff writer