Gophers molding identities

Bob Wothe

After two games, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team is exactly where it was two games ago – winless, with a record of 0-0.

The games were against Division II St. Cloud State and Division III St. Thomas, so they don’t count on Minnesota’s official record, but that doesn’t mean the team isn’t taking things away from them.

“We’re trying to establish the identity that the little things have to matter here,” coach Dan Monson said. “So far, everyone has really bought into that philosophy.”

And that’s important, because the team’s ability to form the identity of a hard-working, cohesive unit could be the most important factor in the success the young team has in beating more experienced and, in many cases, more talented Big Ten teams.

“The team chemistry was definitely there tonight,” junior J’son Stamper said after Friday’s 81-58 victory over St. Cloud State. “We’re creating this identity of toughness and establishing ourselves as hard workers.”

Almost every player has spoken about creating a similar identity, clearly buying into Monson’s philosophy and running with it.

And Monson said he knows the team will need to.

“We’re not gifted enough to take plays off,” Monson said. “Every play is very important for us, and we cannot stop working hard out there.”

On a team in which five of the top eight players have yet to step on the floor of Williams Arena in a Division I game, Monson has tried to limit the expectations people have of “his first real class” – so-called because of NCAA sanctions limiting his ability to recruit for his first few years.

He’s mentioned not judging the season by wins and losses, but rather by progress. With his “first real class,” Monson is trying to build a program philosophy he has been unable to assemble to this point.

“We had some 18- and 19-win seasons within my first few years here,” Monson said. “But those were just Band-Aids – we’re able to now start fixing (the program).”

Freshman center Spencer Tollackson, who delighted the Williams Arena crowd with rim-rattling dunks Friday, said the team truly embraces Monson’s principles.

“We want to be one of those garbage teams,” Tollackson said. “We want to do all the little things and form an identity of playing tough defense.”

And that’s exactly the type of thing Monson wants to hear.

“We know we’re not going to win games easily whether we’re playing St. Cloud State or Michigan State,” Monson said. “We do feel like we’re making progress, but yet we’re smart enough to know that we’re not there yet.”