NEW YORK -- Minnesota coach Tubby Smith and Stanford's Johnny Dawkins ran into each other a few times recruiting Andre Hollins.The point guard from Memphis, Tenn., chose the Golden Gophers, and he's playing his best basketball deep into his freshman season, leading an injury-riddled team to the title game of the NIT - against the Cardinal. The schools face off Thursday night at Madison Square Garden."We want the ball in his hands because he's making very good decisions with it," Smith said Wednesday.
For third-seeded Stanford, there will be plenty of familiarity Thursday, too. The Cardinal played in the Garden in November, reaching the final of the NIT Season Tip-Off. They led Syracuse, which would go on to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, by six points with about 4 12 minutes left.But the Orange turned up the pressure, ending the game on a 15-3 run to win 69-63. Stanford saw convincing evidence in Tuesday's semifinal that it's come a long way since then, when the Cardinal wasted a big lead against Massachusetts but rallied to win."The same run was made, and we didn't respond the way we needed to," Dawkins said of the Syracuse game. "To see our growth in our young players that we were able to respond."
If their history in the Garden isn't enough motivation, the Cardinal received a pep talk from unexpected -- and feared -- guest. NFL linebacker Ray Lewis infused Stanford's locker room with energy when he told them, "If you aren't pissed off for greatness, that means you okay with being mediocre."
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Sixth-seeded Minnesota's young players, Hollins included, have had to grow up in a hurry because of injuries to two key seniors: Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III. The Golden Gophers started three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior in Tuesday's semifinal against Washington.And yet Smith can credit good health for Minnesota's recent strong performances. Players such as Hollins, who was bothered by a sprained right ankle earlier in the season, are no longer nagged by various ailments, leading to more continuity at practice. Others are settling into new roles. Rodney Williams moved from small forward to power forward when Mbakwe was hurt early in the season, and he's averaging 20.8 points in his last five games compared with 10.9 for the first 32."Roles change daily for us with so many missed practices, missed games, and it's been tough," Smith said. "As a coach you want to know, and as players you want to know, their roles and their responsibilities, and they're not that clearly defined because of other extenuating circumstances."Stanford is young in that most important of places: the backcourt. Leading scorer Chasson Randle is a freshman, and sophomore Aaron Bright is the primary ball-handler.Winning the NIT last year was certainly a springboard to success for Wichita State - the Shockers earned a No. 5 seed in this season's NCAA tournament."Whenever you're invited to play in postseason, you get a chance to continue to develop your team, through practices, through just the ability to play in these one-and-done situations," Dawkins said. "I think there's something about that - it hardens you. It makes you a better team; it makes you a tighter unit."
The Associated Press contributed to this report