It wasn’t easy pulling the trigger on this column about the University of Minnesota, the nation’s second-ranked team.
Frankly, it’s difficult to type the words “Golden Gophers,” “Big Ten” and “greatness” and not expect to eat your words.
Last year Purdue played the Big Ten tease, bounding through the season on Gene Keady’s wild hayride, earning a No. 1 seeding in the West Regional over the likes of Kansas, Wake Forest and Cincinnati, only to nearly become the first No. 1 to lose to a No. 16--remember that close shave against Western Carolina?--before bowing out in Round 2.
Minnesota has history to overcome. The Big Ten has a 3-11 tournament record the last two seasons and no conference school has made the Sweet 16 since 1994.
Only last week the Sporting News noted:
“Giving the No. 1 seed to a Big Ten team is like giving your drunk brother-in-law the key to your Mercedes.”
Some of us Gophers-come-lately needed to see the team jump through hoops, do something really praiseworthy, like, say, beat Purdue and Iowa on the road in consecutive games.
Well, last week, Minnesota did just that, satisfying what doubts lingered here.
Coach Clem Haskins?
He’s tired of jumping through hoops.
“Give me my No. 1 seed,” he said from his office this week. “I’ve earned that over the season. The record speaks for itself. I’m tired of being cheated out of things I feel like I deserve. Let me lose it if I lose it, or my team, but give it to us if we deserve it.”
Maybe it’s time to hand the Gophers the car keys.
Most underestimated the resolve of Haskins’ bitter team after last year’s snub by the NCAA tournament committee. The Gophers became the first Big Ten team with a winning conference record and 19 victories not to make the tournament.
Haskins has been seething ever since, passing on his rancor to his five returning starters.
So, the selection committee didn’t like Minnesota’s 8-12 record against top 100 opponents?
OK. Haskins upgraded the schedule, beating Clemson, West Virginia and Rhode Island.
Didn’t care for the Gophers’ 5-7 road record?
Fine. How does 12-2 this year grab you?
The tournament snub crushed Haskins, 53, because he had assured his players last year that they would qualify if they beat Illinois on the road in their final Big Ten game.
When they defeated Illinois, and didn’t make it, Haskins took it personally.
The Gophers returned a laser-focused team--eight players deep and not one taller than 6 feet 9--led by 6-1 superstar senior guard Bobby Jackson.
As far as NCAA qualifications are concerned, Minnesota has “left no doubt,” in Haskins’ words. The Gophers (23-2) are closing in on their first Big Ten title in Haskins’ 11 years and only their fourth in 50 years.
It couldn’t get much sweeter for Haskins, who, in the summer of 1995, wondered if he would ever see the light of this day after suffering a heart attack.
For eight hours, he lay motionless as doctors performed an angioplasty to clear a 90%-95% blockage in his coronary arteries.
“The most painful eight hours I’ve ever spent in my life,” Haskins says. “I couldn’t move, I lay in the bed and I cried, I begged to turn my arms loose.”
Haskins emerged with a new perspective. He cut down the ridiculous hours he had been logging and has vowed to work smarter.
He started to appreciate sweet scents and sunsets, the little things in his life.
“Such as the air I can breathe,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Haskins doesn’t still breathe fire.
Take away his No. 1 seed and watch what happens.
COMING ROUND THE MOUNTAIN
Hawaii should get an NCAA tournament berth on valor.
The Rainbows stumbled back to the islands this week after perhaps the most impressive road sweep in NCAA history, winning twice in the Rocky Mountains after surviving a bus crash Feb 12.
Traveling from Denver to Laramie on Interstate 25, the bus carrying the Hawaii basketball team slammed into the car in front of it.
Coach Riley Wallace calls the action:
“Unbelievable . . . 75 mph, going down the freeway, on ice, and we plow right into the back of a car and knock ‘em silly. We went country-side with that bus, and never tipped over. All it did was hit signs and break out the windows. It put us pinned up against the fence; they had to cut us out.”
But no one was injured.
“The paper reported it was foggy,” Wallace says. “It was not foggy. It was clear. [The driver] just blasted that car from the rear.”
Wallace said it was the first time in his nine years as coach at Hawaii the bus driver took that particular route to Laramie.
And the last.
“That’s for damn sure,” Wallace says. “We had tea leaves. Hawaiians believe tea leaves bring you good luck. We had tea leaves, four-leaf clovers, we had everything on the bus, so they do work.”
Then, with forward Michael Robinson burning up with a 103-degree temperature, the Rainbows beat Wyoming in overtime and, two days later, followed with a victory at Colorado State.
“Our guards could barely get across center court at the end,” Wallace says.
It was the first time under Wallace that Hawaii had beaten those schools on the same trip.
Hawaii is 19-4, still unranked, and considered an NCAA tournament bubble team.
Wallace said it would be a joke if his team didn’t make the tournament.
Hawaii would do anything to get in.
Except ride again with that bus driver.
OFFICIALLY, THESE GUYS BLEW IT
Two blown officials’ calls in less than a week have soured an otherwise banner year for the Atlantic Coast Conference and might have serious NCAA tournament consequences.
How serious? What if Virginia, sitting on the NCAA bubble, doesn’t make the tournament because of a 62-61 loss to Duke on Feb. 11? An ACC crew led by Rick Hartzell botched the ending of that game so thoroughly that an ACC assignment was taken away from the crew.
The officials would not let Virginia substitute after the Cavaliers had made a free throw with five seconds remaining. Against a confused Virginia defense, Duke guard Steve Wojciechowski drove the length of the court, was fouled and made the game-winning free throws with less than a second remaining.
ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan called the last five seconds “a serious officiating mechanics mistake.”
Virginia Coach Jeff Jones hopes the NCAA selection committee weighs the error.
“I would expect them to take that into account,” Jones said. ". . . It’s not like there’s an asterisk next to the game. Duke won the game. It’s not a half-win for us.”
Sunday, another ACC crew capped a shoddy week by allowing a last-second three-point shot by North Carolina State’s C.C. Harrison in a 60-59 overtime victory over No. 2 Wake Forest.
Replays showed Harrison’s left foot was on the three-point line.
Wake Forest dropped from No. 2 to No. 4 in this week’s polls with the loss, a significant move for a team with No. 1 tournament seeding aspirations.
Fred Barakat, ACC associate commissioner, did not reprimand the Mike Wood-led crew in the Wake Forest game, saying the judgment error did not compare to Hartzell’s rule-book breach.
Wake Forest Coach Dave Odom, on the short end of Sunday’s call, has called for peace.
“Enough is enough,” he said of the criticism of the officials. “We forget we’re living in an imperfect world, trying to make the best of an imperfect game with imperfect human beings.”
CAN IT GET ANY WORSE?
Brigham Young’s 1-22 season in a bombshell: Preseason: Top forward Bryon Ruffner kicked off team after pleading guilty to fraud. November: Coach Roger Reid fired after making disparaging remarks following loss of top recruit Chris Burgess to Duke. Season: Starting center Jarkko Ahlbom and top reserve Grant Berges lost to injuries, then on Feb. 8, Justin Weidauer, top scorer and rebounder, broke his left foot in a loss to Wyoming.
Memo to BYU Athletic Director Rondo Fehlberg: Sir, hire Jim Harrick.
St. Joseph’s Coach Phil Martelli has stopped kvetching about Arizona Coach Lute Olson for canceling a game in Philadelphia more than a year ago. “I’ve got a letter on my desk from a senior citizen from Tucson who called me Satan because I continue to talk about Lute Olson,” Martelli says. “I need all the help I can get to get to heaven.”
Bad news for Rick Pitino: Ten NBA scouts were in attendance recently when sophomore Ron Mercer had 23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in Kentucky’s 93-56 rout of Villanova, almost assuring that Mercer will declare for the NBA draft in the spring.
Kansas center Scot Pollard, out since Jan. 22 because of a stress fracture in his foot, is expected to make at least a cameo appearance Saturday for his final home game against archrival Kansas State. “It might just be I put him out there for a three-point shot,” Coach Roy Williams said.
Xavier Coach Skip Prosser, on how he thinks conference MVPs should be selected: “Take the best guy off the best team. If he’s not a jerk, that’s who you pick.”
Stanford center Tim Young, a redshirt last season because of back problems, is in pain again. He has averaged only two baskets in his last five games.
If Ed Gray is voted Pac-10 player of the year, as expected, he will be the first Cal player to win it since . . . last year, when freshman Shareef Abdur-Rahim won it.