Gophers Beware!

Tony Wroten (US PRESSWIRE)

The Washington Huskies have been many things this season: Equal parts excellent and inconsistent; dominating and frustrating. For every label applied to them, there's the fine print on the back. But none of that matters now, and Washington is back playing like a team fighting for something – and that's bad news for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Minnesota plays the Huskies Tuesday in New York City for the right to play for the 2012 NIT Championship. The game is on at 6 pm PT on ESPN2.

The Huskies, who now hold a 24-10 record after three National Invitation Tournament wins, have been long on potential all season – and they're finally starting to realize it now. The travesty that was Selection Sunday punctuated what everyone around the program – and those paying attention to UW all season long - knew: The Huskies were going to kick themselves for a season of blown opportunities. Getting snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee meant the Huskies paid the ultimate cost for taking care of things within their control.

Yet out of the ashes, the Huskies have refocused and regrouped. They flattened Big-10 darling Northwestern, overwhelming the Wildcats with their dominating physicality and athleticism – not an easy achievement given the level of competition NU faced throughout their regular season: Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana being just a few. Despite being thoroughly prepared by Big Ten play, the Huskies crushed them.

After whooping Northwestern came the hated Oregon Ducks. The Pac-12's most experienced team was the one responsible for embarrassing Washington down in Eugene back in February. This time it was UW's invigorated defense and offensive execution that carried the day in one of the most entertaining west coast games all season. The Huskies defended a potent Duck offense despite Aziz N'Daiye being saddled with foul trouble for much of the game.

Their three-game NIT surge has been due largely to their explosive back court. Terrence Ross has emerged as one of the top pure scorers in the country, proving nearly unguardable regardless of the focus paid to him by his defenders. It's not as if a switch has come on for Ross; he's worked just as hard all season long. But suddenly his shots are falling with regularity, which just feeds the sophomore star with more confidence.

Abdul Gaddy has averaged nine points and eight assists over his last five games, nearly netting a triple double against Oregon with a commanding 11-point, 10-assist, 7-rebound performance. C.J. Wilcox has been a rock of consistency, scoring at least 15 points in each of his last five games.

Then, of course, there's Tony Wroten. The 6-foot-5 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year is infinitely adaptable, playing the role of facilitator just as easily as point provider with his aggressive drives to the basket. His energy and enthusiasm are infectious, and his raw physicality make him a nightmare to keep out of the key.

The Huskies head to New York for the second time this season, to the hallowed hardwood of Madison Square Garden. And that should give them an advantage over Minnesota. They've already played two games in the heart of the sports media center of the planet, and held their own against two teams that were high seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

"It took a while for us to change our mindset, but we got those three games done," explained the Huskies' emotional leader and co-captain, senior forward Darnell Gant. "Now I feel like we're real excited to go back to New York and get two more. Just to go back and play at Madison Square Garden…everybody wants to play there. Just to know we got a championship on the line. We can do something big."

"It's the Mecca of sports," explained Tony Wroten before boarding the bus Saturday that would take him and his UW teammates back east. "New York and Madison Square Garden…I live for games like that. I just go out and play my game."

He's not kidding. The former Garfield High School star scored 37 points against Marquette and Duke during the Huskies' first trip to the Garden back in December, thoroughly outplaying rival top-rated freshman guard, Duke's Austin Rivers.

"I don't think that they'll be any jitters," Romar said of the team's return trip to MSG. "I thought maybe we had the jitters against Duke early on, but I don't think that will be the case this time."

The Huskies are set to square off against a Minnesota squad that won 22 games, though they struggled to a 6-12 Big Ten record in a conference that produced six NCAA Tournament teams. "They really embody team," remarked Romar. "They're very aggressive. They guard you really well and they play together. Their team knows their roles. They're a tough opponent."

True to Big Ten form, the Gophers are a rough and tumble, physical team with a beefy front court led by junior forward Rodney Williams and senior F/C Ralph Sampson III. They would have had one of the best front courts in the country if 6-foot-9, 250-pound Trevor Mbakwe, who averaged nearly a double-double in his first seven games, had stayed healthy. He was recently granted a sixth year after suffering an ACL tear in Minnesota's pre-season. Their backcourt is led by two kids from Tennessee, last name Hollins – but they aren't related.

"They go about their business more like Colorado," said Romar when asked to compare them to a team in the Pac-12. "They just give you nothing easy. They're a team. I keep using that word for them because that's what keeps coming up when I think of them."

In reality though, the only thing that stands in front of the Huskies is themselves. The Gophers are big up front, but no bigger or more effective than Oregon. Their backcourt plays smart, but they don't measure up individually to the NBA talent that inhabits UW's group of guards. What they do is play team basketball, and as long as Washington does the same the Huskies should come away with a win and a shot at a post-season championship. Say whatever you want about missing the Big Dance, but an NIT Championship is an accomplishment to be proud of.

"Every time at the end of our season, at the end of the post-season we always end with a loss," acknowledged Gant. "This time we got an opportunity to end with a win. Hopefully I can do that. It will feel good. It leaves a better taste in your mouth for the spring time and the summer time. Usually you get a loss and you got to wait all season to wait for that first game. I'm not coming back for a game so to end it with a win - that would be big."

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