No. 7 Gophers are cautiously optimistic

by Todd Zolecki

Not since 1982 has any Gophers men’s basketball team been ranked as high as No. 7 in the Associated Press poll. This year’s team reached that point Monday and is now eyeing its first Big Ten championship in 15 years.
The recent ranking, and last week’s big victories against Indiana and Michigan, marked Minnesota as the team to beat for the remainder of the Big Ten season.
That success has fans excited and optimistic while the players are growing more confident with each game. Both parties hope a high seed in the NCAA tournament is only a matter of time.
But before players’ heads rise and expand like a hot air balloon — as the polls have done for Minnesota in the past two months — one thing will keep their egos from soaring out of control.
“I think the best thing for that is Coach (Clem) Haskins,” Gophers point guard Eric Harris said. “He stays on us all the time. I think if we were the No. 1 team in the country he’d still be after us, and that’s good to have a coach like that.”
Haskins said his players are going to stay humble and remain hungry. He wants his team to play as if it was 0-16 and fighting its hardest to win.
The Gophers are off to their second-best start in school history, winning 15 of their first 16 games, and can tie their best mark tonight in a game at Illinois. Minnesota started the 1976-77 season 16-1 and finished the season with a school-best 24-3 record.
“Everybody is feeling great right now,” Harris said. “Being ranked eighth or seventh — that’s good because we get a lot of exposure to the school. We can’t get too over confident. We can’t get big heads. Everybody knows that Illinois is a good ball club.”
For Haskins, this is some of the most respect he has received at Minnesota since he arrived on campus more than 11 years ago. He brought the Gophers to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in 1990 and the Sweet Sixteen in 1989. His 1992-93 team won the NIT championship.
“It’s amazing that you can go 15-1 before people recognize you,” Haskins said. “We’ve been here for 11 years, we’ve had 11 wonderful years at Minnesota, with a lot of success. All of a sudden you have to go 15-1 and get ranked before people start realizing that.”
The Gophers have done it with a deep roster of talented players and tough defense. Three players average more than 10 points a game and up to seven players are capable of scoring in double figures at any time.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Haskins said.
Harris has noticed a difference in attitude on campus. Before the season, he said, people seemed to have doubts about how far this team could go, but now they are getting lots of recognition. He said it’s a big change from November.
But that’s what an overtime victory against the Hoosiers can do for a team. Still, he wants to remain hungry, just like Haskins instructed him to be.
“We didn’t accomplish anything yet,” Harris said. “We want to win the Big Ten championship. Until we do that and get into the (NCAA) tournament and win a lot of games there we haven’t done a thing.”
Jackson is prime time
Haskins said Saturday if Gophers guard Bobby Jackson didn’t win the Big Ten Player of the Week award, the conference should just scrap the honor all together.
The Big Ten won’t have to abolish its award now that it went to Jackson. But Haskins had a point.
Jackson averaged 23 points, nine rebounds and 3.5 assists per game last week against Indiana and Michigan. The senior hit a game-tying three-pointer against the Hoosiers that sent the game into overtime.
Through his first four Big Ten games, Jackson has averaged 18.5 points, eight rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

One more scholarship?
The NCAA might add one men’s basketball scholarship during its annual committee meeting this week, which concludes Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn.
Men’s basketball teams lost two scholarships in 1991 for cost-cutting purposes and for gender equity in women’s athletics. Women’s basketball programs have 15 scholarships while men’s programs have 13.
Haskins hopes the proposal passes.
“It’s only the right thing to do,” he said. “Men’s basketball is generating the funds that support the athletics department. Why should we continue to be cut on our scholarships — which is ridiculous in the first place — and deprive the young men the opportunity to play?”
Haskins said an additional scholarship would reduce injuries because it would not force coaches to play athletes who are hurt.
“Why should women have 15 and guys have 13? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Thomas still in pain
Gophers sophomore Charles Thomas is questionable for tonight’s game against Illinois, Haskins said Monday. Thomas has experienced back pain for the past week.
The shooting guard scored 11 points in eight minutes Saturday against Michigan, but left the game in the second half because of his back. He didn’t practice last Thursday and Friday and did not practice Sunday.
Haskins hoped to have Thomas walk through practice Monday before the team left for Illinois.
Thomas said he felt a lot of pain before practice Monday, but did not want to comment further on the injury.
This is not the first time Thomas has had trouble with his back. He sat out of practice for a few days before the season started in November.