We were really hoping we wouldn’t have to write this piece again in 2012. But a disappointing 2011-12 Gophers men’s basketball season—one which saw them race to a 12-1 start before dropping seven of their last nine—has forced our hand. For the second year in a row, the Minnesota Golden Gophers will not be participating in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Unlike last year, however, they will be competing in the NIT, which is, in our opinion, better than spending March in South Padre.
And just because the Gophers won’t be in the tournament doesn’t mean Minnesota won’t be in the tournament. As the saying goes, you can take the Minnesota out of the Dance, but you can’t take the Dance out of Minnesota. That’s right, folks. Dust off those cowboy boots, and mosey on out to the dance floor. It’s time for Minnesota basketball to do the ole’ heal-and-a-toe and a dosi-do, and a-slide, slide, slide. We might not be in the Big Dance, but our tournament presence is everywhere. Players…coaches…history…connections. It’s almost seems as if Minnesota is the center of the NCAA basketball universe!
So, as you’re watching this year’s tournament and you’re thinking about how great it would be to see Goldy spinning his head on the sidelines of a tournament game, and those all-too-common feelings of depression and anger start to settle in, take a deep breath and remember:
This year’s NCAA tournament would be non-existent without the presence of Minnesota nice.
To help you realize just how deep Minnesota’s roots are in this year’s tournament, we’ve compiled a team-by-team breakdown of Minnesota connections. While this information won’t help you with your bracket selections, it will make you feel better as a person. Ladies and gentlemen…Minnesota’s Six Degrees of Separation from the Big Dance.
1 Michigan State vs. 16 LIU Brooklyn
Michigan State plays in the Big Ten conference, which means they saw the Gophers two times this season. Suffice it to say, if not for Sparty’s two wins over Minnesota, they would not be a #1 seed. As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron. The Michigan State team you see in the tournament is a product of Minnesota sharpening. Beyond that, had the Gophers won their home game against Michigan State on February 22 (a game in which they lost 66-61 after leading by 5 with under four minutes to play), they probably would be in the tournament.
Like your University of Minnesota men’s basketball program, LIU Brooklyn is infamously known for its connection with one of the biggest college sporting scandals in history. In 1950-51, the Blackbirds were involved in a massive point shaving scandal within college basketball, a black eye which crippled LIU’s basketball program. Following the scandal, LIU shut down its entire athletic program from 1951-57, and didn’t return to Division I competition until the 1980’s. Not until 1997—the year Minnesota did not win the Big Ten conference, and did not make it to the Final Four—did LIU make it back to the Big Dance (where they were summarily dismissed 101-91 by Villanova).
8 Memphis vs. 9 St. Louis
When Tubby Smith was hired as coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2007, one of his first moves was to bring in a bona fide assistant coach who could specialize in recruiting. His choice was Jimmy Williams. Williams was an assistant coach with the Gophers from 1971-1986, and served as interim coach at the end of the 1986 season. In 2007, Williams accepted Smith’s offer, and left his job at Oklahoma State to join the Gophers. Shortly thereafter, however, Gophers AD Joel Maturi vetoed Smith’s hire, citing Williams’ alleged involvement in NCAA violations when he was at Minnesota in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The veto left Williams without a job, which prompted him to file suit against the University of Minnesota—a lawsuit that is still winding to a close some five years later. Williams expects to be awarded $1.25 million from the university. Jimmy Williams is now the assistant basketball coach at Memphis.
The Billikens’ roster is chock full of Minnesotans and leading the way is former St. Bernard’s star Jordair Jett, who averages 6.4 points per game. St. Louis also has freshmen Grant Gehlen (Cretin-Derham Hall) and Jimmy Remke (Hill Murray) on its roster, as well as Wisconsin native Rick Majerus, who is well connected to the Twin Cities area, as its head coach.
5 New Mexico vs. 12 Long Beach State
Minnesota fans should feel good about their shared connection with New Mexico. It’s a simple one: the nickname! No, New Mexico is not nicknamed the Golden Gophers. But it does have the same nickname as our professional basketball team, the Minnesota Timberwolves…sort of…like, the Spanish version. Go Lobos! Okay, that one doesn’t wet your whistle? Assistant coach Duane Broussard coached for nine seasons (1993-2002) at Bradley University, all of which were spent coaching with former Gophers assistant coach (and 2006-07 interim head coach) Jim Molinari.
Long Beach State is coached by none other than former Golden Gophers basketball coach, Dan Monson. While Monson enjoyed mixed results during his 8 seasons at Minnesota (1999-2007), most were happy to see him go midway through the 2006-07 season. He finished his time at Minnesota with a record of 118-106, but only made the NCAA tournament once (2005). And while he won more than 18 games four separate times, the Gophers had only one finish in the upper half of the Big Ten (4th in 2005) under Monson. Since landing at Long Beach State, Monson has rebuilt a dismal program, winning more games each of the five years he has been at the school. That culminated this season with the school’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1995.
Louisville is coached by none other than Rick Pitino, who has coached in a number of different places, including the University of Kentucky. His final season with Big Blue was in 1996-97, which happens to be the same season that Minnesota did not meet Kentucky in the Final Four. The Wildcats won the game in a forfeit 2-0 (which, loosely translated, means the Wildcats enjoyed a come-from-behind win over the Gophers, 78-69). The Gophers have also played Louisville in the NCAA tournament twice. They lost to the Cardinals 60-55 in the second round in 1994, and the lost to them in 67-61 in the 1982 region semifinal.
In 2009, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Ricky Rubio with their 5th pick, followed by Jonny Flynn with their 6th pick. At the outset, analysts were befuddled as to why the Wolves would pick two point guards back-to-back in the same draft (they would later add a third with the 18th pick), especially considering the fact that shooting guard Stephen Curry was available. Curry, who had just ripped apart the NCAA tournament while leading Davidson to the Elite Eight, was picked 7th. While Flynn is long gone, the Wolves are still looking for their solution at shooting guard, while Curry is out west enjoying a nice start to his NBA career.
6 Murray State vs. 11 Colorado State
No #16-seed has ever beaten a #1-seed in the first round of the tournament. In 1990, Murray State nearly did just that, losing to top-seeded Michigan State 75-71 in overtime. As it turned out, Michigan State made it to the Sweet Sixteen, where they lost to Georgia Tech in one of the most controversial finishes ever to a tournament game. And who did Georgia Tech play in the Elite Eight? The Minnesota Golden Gophers, led by Willie Burton, Melvin Newburn, Kevin Lynch and the boys.
Ever heard of Chad Calcaterra? Me neither (which I am mildly embarrassed about)…that was until earlier today when I realized he was a freshman center for Colorado State. Calcaterra is a former all-state player for Cloquet. Beyond Calcaterra, Colorado State also has assistant coach Nikko Medved, a Saint Paul native who got his start as a student manager at the U of M. He went on to coach at Macalester College for two seasons, before navigating several Division I coaching jobs, including one season with Minnesota.
3 Marquette vs. 14 BYU or Iona
Being a scant 5 hours from Minnesota, you’d think the Marquette connections would be overflowing. In reality, they are tough to come by. Most notably, Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe started his college career at Marquette. Outside of that, the Gophers have played one NCAA tournament game against the Golden Eagles—a 77-72 win over Marquette in a 1972 regional 3rd place game. That team was Bill Musselman’s “Iron Five” squad, which also won the Big Ten title.
On November 17, the Gophers beat Fairfield 67-57. The win had the Gophers at 3-0, and the season looked bright. Four games later, Trevor Mbakwe tore his ACL and a once-promising season entered tumultuous waters. What does a loss to Fairfield have to do with Iona? Well, the Gaels play in the MAAC conference along with Fairfield and played them three times this season. Iona won both regular season games by scores of 71-62 and 77-72. But Fairfield almost was Iona’s NCAA undoing, as they nicked the Gaels 85-75 in the MAAC semifinals. Fortunately for Iona, the Selection Committee showed mercy and gave them an at-large into this year’s tournament.
BYU was the quasi-darlings of the 2011 NCAA tournament. Led by Jimmer Fredette, the Cougars advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Florida. To get there, though, they had to survive a feisty first round opponent in Wofford, whose roster was packed with Minnesota talent. Cameron Rundles (DeLaSalle), Jamar Diggs (DeLaSalle) and Noah Dahlman (Braham) gave BYU fits before Jimmer’s heroics finally gave the Cougars the win.
7 Florida vs. 10 Virginia
If you go back to the 1999 NCAA tournament, you’ll find a Minnesota team that was seeded #7 in the West Region. Their first round opponent–the Gonzaga Bulldogs. While the Gophers lost that game 75-63, the outcome of the game might have been different if it weren’t for the fact that news of the academic scandal broke the night before the Gonzaga-Minnesota tilt. Minnesota lost; Gonzaga moved on. Had the Gophers won, they might have enjoyed the same run that the Bulldogs, which would have resulted in a Minnesota-Florida Sweet Sixteen matchup. Alas, what might have been…
Similarly, the Gophers could have met the Virginia Cavaliers in the 1989 NCAA tournament…if both had advanced to the championship game. While both made a good run at making it happen, (Gophers lost in the Sweet Sixteen, while Virginia lost in the Elite Eight), it wasn’t close to happening.
2 Missouri vs. 15 Norfolk State
Missouri’s Minnesota connection? Former all-American shooting guard Anthony Peeler, who spent five years with the Minnesota Timberwolves. As a player at Missouri, Peeler finished his career third on the all-time scoring list (1,970 points), and is the career record holder for steals and assists.
As you can probably imagine, Norfolk State is not an easy one to connect to Minnesota. Thankfully, there is Virginia Tech…the only common opponent this season for Minnesota and Norfolk State. The Spartans lost to the Hokies 73-60 back in early December. Around the same time, Minnesota eked out a 58-55 win over Virginia Tech.
Check back later today for the East Region.
Joe Buri is a former high school athletic director who currently works as an attorney in corporate America. In addition to writing for TC Huddle, he also volunteers as an assistant varsity basketball coach at a local Twin Cities high school. Once dubbed “The Human Stump,” he considers holding former NBA forward Devean George to 39 points a highlight of his collegiate basketball experience.