The first true hoops ‘team’ in years

This year marks the return of five-on-five basketball at the University.

What do Kris Humphries and Rick Rickert have in common? Over the last three years, they put an “I” in “team.”

During that time, the Gophers offense revolved around Humphries and Rickert, but this year, the Minnesota men’s basketball team is without a standout. Instead, it is a cornucopia of role players and young players hungry for a chance to showcase their talents. Win or lose, the Gophers will play team basketball this season, which started with an exhibition game versus St. Thomas on Saturday.

Williams Arena became the “House of Hagen” on Saturday, as the student section rallied behind 7-foot, 270-pound center Jeff Hagen. Hagen dominated the paint against the Tommies, posting a team-high 17 points. Redshirt freshman Dan Coleman scored 15 points, and junior Vincent Grier added 14, which provided much of the excitement for the afternoon. Grier hustled on offense and defense, aggressively attacking the basket and terrorizing the Tommies, collecting four steals in the game.

With Adam Boone lost to injury and Moe Hargrow sitting out the season because of his transfer back to Minnesota, these are the players who will carry the team this year. The question will be how they will match up against Illinois’ Dee Brown, Michigan State’s Chris Hill and other Big Ten standouts.

While St. Thomas fails to measure up to the competition the Gophers will face this year, they should be thought of as a preparatory exam. It doesn’t go on the record, but it allows you to learn from your mistakes and get a feel for what the real thing will be like.

Saturday’s game was a baby step toward the level the team needs to play, but the Gophers need to make big strides if they want to contend for a Big Ten title this season. Almost everyone, including Ryan “Lil’ Flip” Saunders, saw action, providing head coach Dan Monson with an idea of who is ready to play and who needs to practice.

Even if the Gophers become familiar with the loss column, this is the year to watch Gophers basketball. The ball is going to be shared. If one man has an off night, the team’s chances of winning won’t be squashed. This year marks the return of five-on-five basketball at the University.

Underrated and underappreciated, the Gophers are in perfect position to upset the nine teams predicted to finish ahead of them in the Big Ten. Small expectations for this year’s team have lowered the expectations of an NCAA Tournament appearance in March. Monson and the Gophers have a bright future, but, unfortunately, many fans have given up on a team they haven’t even seen yet.

As a proud member of the “Barnyard,” the official student section, I am content with this season’s small fan base. True fans support their team through thick and thin, and with a paper-thin outlook on this season, the fair-weather fans have been weeded out. Only die-hard fans who bleed maroon and gold remain to cheer on a team that has the hunger and talent to win games.

These are the Gophers of new. Get to know them. With a fresh look and a team focus, they can go places no one expects them to.

Mike Durkin welcomes comments at [email protected]