Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gopher Basketball Decade

Note: The Gopher hoops team will play its final games of the decade Wednesday night against South Dakota State and next Tuesday against Penn State, both at home . Barring the inconceivable, Minny will win the game and will go into Big Ten play with a 9-3 record. Because we're superstitious, however, we will not include a potential victory in the analysis which follows.

After the previous decade was ruined by an academic scandal which cost coach Clem Haskins his job and the University a bunch of wins (and seasons, for that matter), the Gopher basketball squad managed to put together a moderately-successful decade of the 00s. Haskins was fired in March of 1999 amid a scandal which wiped away six full seasons of results (1993-94 through 1998-1999 officially read as "0-0" seasons) and forced the U to look elsewhere for a coach. Gonzaga bounced the cagers from the NCAA Tournament (unofficially, since the records - and tourney appearances - have been wiped clean) that season, and its head coach, Dan Monson, was brought to Minneapolis to clean things up. Monson accepted a job which was turned down by at least two others, and stepped into a near-impossible situation.

With scholarship limitations for much of his tenure, Monson struggled at the helm. The Gophers were 12-16 in his first season (1999-2000), but just 4-12 in the Big Ten. Improvement was made over the next two seasons, and the 2004-05 squad rode Vincent Grier all the way to a 21-11 (10-6) record and a NCAA Tournament appearance.

However, the decade will always be clouded by controversy, including:
  • Kris Humphries' disastrous one-year run at the U. The local kid spurned Duke for the Gophers at the last minute and decided to take all the shots in his one season in maroon and gold. He was Big Ten player of the year, but his toxic presence split the locker room (another local kid, Maurice Hargrow, left the club mid-season) and resulted in a 12-18 (3-13) 10th place finish.
  • Another local kid, Rick Rickert, backing out of his Arizona commitment at the last minute and coming to the U. However, Rickert and the Gophers fell far-short of expectations.
  • A third local kid, Joel Pryzbilla, quitting school mid-season after academic questions in Monson's first season at the helm.
  • A fan base which turned against Monson and left the Gophers playing before a half-empty Williams Arena.

Monson was fired after a 2-5 start to the 2006-07 season and replaced on an interim basis by top assistant Jim Molinari. The overall numbers on Monson's eight-season tenure aren't horrible - 118-106, but he was just 44-68 in Big Ten play and no finishes higher than fourth. Granted, success for any coach in the situation that was Minnesota basketball at the beginning of the decade would have been highly unlikely. However, the numbers don't lie, and the fact that the Gophers finished 10th three times during his tenure, were Monson's undoing.

After Monson's mid-season dismissal, the Gophers were clearly in flux and desperately in need of a big-time hire. Athletic Director Joel Maturi hit a home run in the spring of 2007 with the surprise hiring of Tubby Smith, late of the University of Kentucky. Smith's hiring brought instant credibility and renewed local interest to the program, and the team qualified for the NCAA Tournament in his second season.

Smith's recruiting classes at the U have been heralded nationally, which was an area in which Monson struggled mightily. The Monson-era Gophers relied heavily on local kids who changed their minds about their initial commitments and junior college transfers. Smith went after and snagged some of the country's top talent.

Overall, the numbers for the decade, defined as beginning with the 2000-01 season, are as follows:
  • Total mark: 163-135 (.547)
  • Big Ten record: 60-88 (.405)
  • NCAA Tournament Appearances: 2
  • Big Ten Upper Division Finishes: 1
  • Big Ten 9th or 10th Place Finishes: 5

All and all, a disappointing run. However, there is hope. Although the jury is out on the current version of the Gophers, a team with a nucleus of Ralph Sampson III, Al Nolen, Rodney Williams, and Devoe Joseph looks solid for the future, and veteran leaders like Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson complement this group nicely. There are heightened expectations in Gold Country this season, which is a departure from the start of this decade.

One thing is certain. After three decades in which results were either forfeited or wiped clean, or ruined amid scandal (rape allegations in 1986-87) the Gophers can count every game played during the decade of the 00s.

That's gotta count for something!

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