Gophers nab an 11 seed in NCAA; Will face Xavier on Friday morning

The Gophers may not have accomplished the improbable this weekend -- but we'll settle for the impressive.  Forty-five minutes after the G-Men were stomped 90-61 by Ohio State in their first Big Ten Tournament title game, a year that was oft more plight than flight found late

-season salvage with an at-large selection to the Greatest Tournament the World Has Ever Known.

Rewarded for a Big Ten Tourney run that included back-to-back wins over No. 11 Michigan State and No. 6 Purdue, the Gophers (21-13) received a No. 11 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament.  This Friday morning (11:25 a.m. Central), the Gophers will face the 6th seeded Xavier Musketeers (24-8) in the first round of March Madness.  In perhaps a fortuitous sign for the Gophers, the game will be played in Milwaukee.  The winner of Minnesota vs. Xavier will play the victor of No. 3 seed Pittsburgh and No. 14 seed Oakland on Sunday.

In a campaign that began with a No. 25 national rank, this version of Tubby Smith's Gophers namely made headlines for the wrong reasons.  Weighed down by the off-court issue of transfer Trevor Mbakwe, the non-hoop steals of now-departed Royce White, and the academic suspension of starting point guard Al Nolen -- the Gophers sunk hearts with a highly pedestrian 15-10 record come Valentine's Day.  But with their season seemingly embedded in the terra firma of N.I.T soil, they suddenly found some juice the ensuing week with a 68-52 home win over then- No.18 Wisconsin.  From that date on, the Gophers assembled six more wins in their final nine games and trimmed just enough fat off their resume to squeeze into a Big Dance dress for the second-consecutive year in Tubby's three seasons at the helm.

After a 20-14, N.I.T. effort in Smith's first year, the Gophers claimed a 10 seed in last season's tournament.  Rather than appear as a belle of the ball, however, the U was merely another sauced date twirling out of brackets in the first round, losing to 7th seeded Texas, 76-62 after trailing by just three points at the half.  The selection this year marks Tubby's 16th team to make the NCAA's.  He owns a 29-14 career record in March Madness and, of course, won a National Championship while at Kentucky in 1998.   

In Xavier, the Gophers get one of three Atlantic 10 teams to have made the tourney.  The two shared two common opponents this year, Butler and St. Josephs (Pa.). While both squashed St. Joe's, only the Gophers felled Butler (the No. 5 seed in the West Region).  Xavier lost their matchup to the Bulldogs, 69-68.  But the familiarity ends there for these two, as the Gophers and Musketeers have only met thrice in hoop history.  But our boys sure kicked their ass in the last showdown . . . which occurred in 1956.  Overall, Minnesota is 3-0 all-time vs. Xavier.  

Despite the good fortunes of the Milwaukee court, the Gophers know (or soon will) that Xavier

has made a habit of getting pretty cozy in the NCAA's.  The Musketeers have appeared in the last two Sweet 16's (with an Elite 8 appearance two year back) and have won at least one tournament game three years running.  What may serve well in the Gopher's favor regarding that experience, however, is that Xavier's Mad runs through March in recent years were directed by the spunky Sean Miller, who departed to coach at Arizona.  New head Chris Mack has both a cool name and an exemplary history as a top NCAA assistant, but he has some work to do to catch up to those 29 Tournament wins of Tubby.  29 games worth, to be exact.

Within the lines, Xavier is led by sophomore guard Jordan Crawford, who went for 19.7 ppg. game this season and scored in double-digits in all games but one.  Crawford has been hot of late, with 62 points in his last three.  He's one of three Musketeers to average in double figures. 

Teamed in the Xavier backcourt is fellow sophomore Terrell Holloway, who averaged 11.8 ppg. of his own and led the Musketeers with 3.9 assists per.  Above these guards stands F/C Jason Love, the lone senior on the squad and something of a board monster.  He led Xavier with 8.6 rebs. per, and had 10 games with double-digit rebounding totals.  On two occasions this year, Love grabbed 19 boards, the feat first and most notably accomplished, against Marquette (No. 6 seed in the East Region).

The Gophers played some inspired ball over the weekend, with the most notable developments amidst their heat coming in the respective growths of sophomores Devoe Joseph and "The South Dakota Mota" Colton Iverson.  Joseph has no doubt evidenced continued growth since taking over for Nolen in late January, his evolution at the point seen via the Canadian's double-digit point totals in six of his last seven games, a stretch that includes his monster eight overtime points in the Gopher's win over Michigan State.  Iverson won't fill up the stat sheet, but the guy is a hard-ass presence in the paint and has put up a field goal clip of at least 60 percent in six straight games.

Combining the recent play of these guys with the shooting of Blake Hoffarber, the scoring ability Lawrence Westbrook, the rebounding/touch Ralph Sampson III and the floor games of Damian Johnson and Paul Carter -- the Gophers have a legitimate shot to get to the round of 32 for the first time since the ghost season of 1997.

But like any Dance lesson, the first step begins with stepping firmly on the "X."  

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