Pay a visit to TCF Bank Stadium sometime and you’ll think you’re entering a time warp. University of Minnesota football fans know what I’m talking about. Those banners waving in the wind atop the facility pay homage to the Gophers’ proud history.
Seven national championships. A whopping 18 Big Ten titles. Sounds impressive, right? There’s just one problem. That last maroon and gold conference flag went up in 1967, at a now nonexistent Memorial Stadium, a couple of years before Woodstock. The first Super Bowl hadn’t been played yet. The price for a gallon of gas was 33 cents.
It’s a bit better at Williams Arena but not much. You see, even though the Golden Rodents took part in a Final Four in 1997, that one got wiped away due to a cheating scandal under Clem Haskins’ watch. So that means Minnesota’s last Big Ten basketball championship goes back to 1982. The Metrodome had just been built. Gas was still under a dollar, and Ronald Reagan was our president. There have also been just four NCAA tournament appearances since 2000.
Since many of us feel we’ve witnessed more than our share of Minnesota misery in recent decades, you’ll excuse us Gopher grads for our growing giddiness. Somehow, our hoop heroes are relevant once more.
In fact, this year’s team has been so much fun to watch, I almost feel like I’m a teenager again. But one living in 2017. So it seems only fitting, that as the Gophers get ready for postseason play, I honor them with my own set of acronyms worthy of today’s social media:
That’s Overachieving Minnesota Gophers. In case anyone cares to remember, last year’s squad finished 8-23 and won just two games in the conference. There was not a preseason poll in the country that had the Gophers finishing higher than 10th this season. Yes, the team had injuries and was rocked by player suspensions in 2016. But to manage a symmetrical reversal to 23-8 in one year, almost defies logic.
We Took Fourth! As odd as it may sound, there are now 14 teams in the Big Ten. Minnesota fans are more than familiar with “play-in” games in the conference tournament, under way this week in Washington, D.C. Those games are reserved for the bottom four teams in the league standings. Last year, the Gophers faced Illinois and were “one and done.” A reasonable expectation for improvement would have been to land a spot between fifth and 10th, thereby allowing a chance to rest on Day One and begin action Thursday of tournament week. But by climbing all the way to fourth place with a mark of 11-7, our club gets TWO days off! Minnesota will open postseason play with a Friday game against either Michigan State or Penn State. By then, six teams will have already been eliminated.
Limit Overtime Losses. In a year where balance never seemed more obvious, the Big Ten basketball season was littered with down-to-the-wire, nail-biting, regular season games. So to survive, a team had to play with grit and determination. The Gophers seemed to thrive in “crunch time.” Playing in five overtime games and several others that weren’t decided until the closing seconds, they mustered huge wins over Purdue, Northwestern, Iowa, Indiana and Michigan. Only Michigan State and Wisconsin managed to beat them in extra sessions.
Lynch, Mason and Others. How does a team win 15 more games and jump nine spots in the conference standings? It begins with defense. Minnesota’s Reggie Lynch didn’t score much and was often in foul trouble. But the sophomore was an absolute monster when opponents tried to attack the basket. Recently named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Lynch had a ridiculous 11 blocked shots in a win against Penn State.
Guard Nate Mason sat out a portion of last season, suspended for his part in a sex tape scandal that almost led to his dismissal from the team. But the junior matured greatly after the incident and was clearly the team’s leader in this amazing turnaround. Mason ran the offense, made crucial free throws and was deservedly named to the Big Ten’s First Team All-Conference squad.
Fellow guard Dupree McBrayer was also suspended last year. Like Mason, he worked hard to restore his image and made a big contribution, particularly in the second half of the season. Power forward Jordan Murphy stands just 6-foot-7 but averages 10 points a game and is fearless inside. Freshman Amir Coffey made a big splash as a scorer and slasher and will only continue to improve as his body gets stronger.
Pitino Doubters Quieted. A year ago at this time, Richard Pitino was under fire. After three years as the Gophers’ head coach, his 51-51 record, with no NCAA tournament appearances, was not sitting well with the Gopher faithful. But that record was a bit deceptive, given that he had been handcuffed by some of last year’s hardships. Toss out that 8-23 disaster and Pitino’s resume included a 25-win first season, an NIT championship and a much more respectable 43-28 record his first two years.
Now he is recognized as the Big Ten Coach of the Year, with a program clearly on the rise. Minnesota loses only senior transfer Akeem Springs and will bring in two more outstanding players to join an already potent lineup. Whatever Pitino did in the off-season to rally the troops, it worked. The team plays with heart and unselfishness, often sharing the ball for the greater good.
Believe Final Four! OK, maybe now I’m getting a little too giddy. Realistically, the Gophers have already exceeded expectations, and anything after this would be gravy. But winning eight straight games in the Big Ten is no small feat. In fact, the Gophers found a way to beat every team in the conference except Michigan State and Wisconsin. They may get a chance to change that, too, in this week’s tournament.
There are unquestionably many teams in the country with far more talent. But the Gophers were only beaten decisively on three occasions this season: at Florida State, at Michigan State and at Wisconsin. When they are playing well, they can compete with anyone. What probably will be their undoing is an occasionally stagnant offense that can go cold for long stretches too frequently.
Coach of Year Needs Extension! Since selfies, ego-driven tweets and YouTube videos are now the rage, I figured I needed one more acronym just about ME. So I’m seeing if COYNE catches on and brings me instant attention. Not really.
Pitino does have a contract through 2021. But his annual salary of $1.6 million is still near the bottom for Big Ten coaches. MSU’s Tom Izzo makes more than $4 million a year. If there’s one thing you learn as a Gopher supporter, it’s to always expect a brief run of success to be quickly followed by something more Gopher-like. Maybe another scandal. Or that fear that your beloved head coach will soon depart for greener pastures. Pay him what it takes to keep him around.
BTW…it’s TBT again. Sadly, I really was alive back in 1967. IDK. Maybe the kids will just want me to STFU.