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Gophers Ben Johnson says NIT is 'the next right step for our program'

<div>Elijah Hawkins #0 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers drives to the basket against Jamison Battle #10 of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first half at Williams Arena on February 22, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.</div> <strong>((Photo by David Berding/Getty Images))</strong>
Elijah Hawkins #0 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers drives to the basket against Jamison Battle #10 of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first half at Williams Arena on February 22, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
((Photo by David Berding/Getty Images))

MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - Don’t tell the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team that the National Invitation Tournament means nothing.

Ben Johnson and the Gophers knew the NCAA Tournament wouldn’t be in their postseason plans after an 18-14 regular season, including a 9-11 mark in Big Ten play and last week’s early exit from the conference tournament. They learned Sunday night they would be getting a bid to the NIT, if they chose to accept it. That’s partly because teams like St. John’s, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, Memphis, Ole Miss and Indiana that were expecting NCAA bids declined invites to the NIT.

Johnson talked to his team Sunday night and their message was simple: Let’s play.

"Our guys wanted to, they really expressed that they were excited to keep playing. It was definitely a no-brainer once I knew all the guys wanted to go and play. Any time you can get a chance to go and compete nationally, we’re going to do it," Johnson told reporters on Monday via Zoom.

Minnesota will face Butler Tuesday night. The Bulldogs went 18-14, including a 9-11 mark in the Big East. They did get a win at Marquette, which has been a top-10 team all season, in early January. It’ll be Minnesota’s first appearance in the NIT since 2014, when they won the championship in Richard Pitino’s first season as a head coach.

The Gophers aren’t exactly peaking heading into the NIT. They’ve lost three straight and five of their past six, and couldn’t take advantage of the Big Ten Tournament being in their backyard in a second round loss to Michigan State at Target Center.

But it’s another chance to play, and one they didn’t know they’d get. Johnson talked more than once Monday about the Gophers being picked dead last in the Big Ten before the season, for the third straight time.

"For a team that was picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten, to be able to not only get nine wins in league, but to now be able to play in a legit postseason tournament I think shows the growth of where we’ve come," Johnson said. "It’s a necessary step, this was always kind of the plan. You always want to be in the NCAA Tournament, but this is the next best thing and it’s the next right step for our program."

The Gophers took a step this season. Their 18 wins is the most in Johnson’s three years. Their nine Big Ten wins are more than his first two seasons combined.

Johnson made it very clear the NCAA Tournament is the goal. But playing in the NIT, and keeping the current roster intact for next season, creates the path to have a watch party next year on Selection Sunday.

"We made progress this year, which is what we all wanted to have. You’ve got the right guys in the room, it’s an opportunity to be on a national platform, it’s also another right step," Johnson said. "We have big aspirations in the future, but you’ve got to start somewhere."