Gophers relieved at chance for postseason

The season is still more than three weeks away, but the Minnesota men’s basketball team is already celebrating its first win of the year.
After the University voluntarily banned the team from postseason play last year, the Gophers were playing only for their pride.
On Tuesday, the players learned the NCAA won’t penalize the team with further bans on postseason play, meaning the Gophers aren’t guaranteed a spot on the couch when March Madness rolls around this year.
“It’s the ultimate goal. Everybody goes to college and wants to be a champion,” said senior forward John-Blair Bickerstaff of playing in the NCAA tournament. “We have that chance now. Come March, who knows what can happen?
“Before, no matter what we did, we were going home early.”
Coach Dan Monson, who took over the helm in the summer of 1999, knew full-well the day would come when the NCAA cracked the whip on his program.
Sixteen months after arriving in Minnesota, Monson is glad the NCAA went easy on those who had nothing to do with the scandal but live in its wake.
“The program deserved to be punished, the school deserved to be punished,” Monson said. “But they left the innocent players alone, and that’s what I’m thrilled about.”
One of those players is junior Dusty Rychart, who played under the man behind the scandal: departed coach Clem Haskins.
Rychart wasn’t involved with the academic fraud case and said he’s happy he put the situation behind him and play meaningful basketball.
“Last night was a hard night of sleeping,” Rychart said. “I was wondering if they were going to be hard on us or just scratch the surface.”
“I happy to be able to play for a postseason berth. It’s definitely a dream rekindled here.”
While the current team is focused on returning to the postseason, future Minnesota teams might be affected by the University’s reputation following this case.
A scandal like the one Minnesota went through puts a dark shadow over how high school recruits view the program.
But Monson said the biggest struggle in terms of recruiting was telling the players he didn’t know what the consequences would be.
Monson hopes the recruits will now see Minnesota can become a winner again — soon.
“Today we start putting this behind us,” Monson said. “The hardest thing about recruiting is the unknown.”
The current recruit Monson has tried explaining the program’s situation to most is Duluth East’s Rick Rickert, who has narrowed his college choices to Minnesota and Arizona.
Rickert, rated as one of the top ten high school seniors in the nation by many publications, postponed his college decision until the sanctions were released.
Although he was leaning towards Arizona, the seemingly minor penalties imposed by the NCAA on the University might give Rickert a change of heart.
He’ll announce his decision Wednesday afternoon.
Whether or not Rickert commits to Minnesota is a sidebar to the big picture of the scandal, however.
Lost with the NCAA findings will be any record of the Gophers 1997 trip to the Final Four and 1998’s NIT Championship.
Both banners, which fly high above the court at Williams Arena, will have to be removed. And when they come down, Monson and his team won’t be there.
“I don’t feel that it needs to be done in front of our players,” Monson said. “We don’t need a ceremony in front of our team.”
This season will be a part of the process of moving on for the Gophers — with the hope for a return to glory of old, meaningfully played out in The Barn.

John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]