Success means more is expected in future

The Gophers men’s basketball team has captured the interest of Minnesota sports fans for years. Mychal Thompson, Kevin McHale and Voshon Lenard. The 24-3 record in 1976-77, the Elite Eight appearance in 1990 and the NIT title in 1993.
Those players and seasons shaped a nice basketball history. In comparison to schools like UCLA, North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky, however, the Gophers spot in the national spotlight had been nonexistent.
Until this year.
Minnesota’s first-ever Final Four appearance and first Big Ten title since 1982 marked the end of the school’s most celebrated season ever. And the story of the Gophers 31-4 ride leaked out of the state. Media outlets nationwide became hooked on the tale of the team’s rise from NCAA snub last year to title contenders this year.
Now comes the next step: Making sure this season’s showing — and subsequent national love affair — wasn’t just a one-year stand.
Minnesota has an opportunity now to become the Big Ten’s crown jewel. Indiana and Michigan, the conference superpowers, are down. Purdue won three straight Big Ten championships before this season, but the Boilermakers couldn’t get over the hump nationally because of poor NCAA tournament performances.
The Gophers will have more regular season games on national television as a result of this year’s success. Increased scrutiny comes with that territory — as does increased opportunity.
The immediate future for the Gophers raises questions. Bobby Jackson, John Thomas and Trevor Winter’s departures mean the team will have less talent and depth to work with. Minnesota has also yet to use any of its four available scholarships for next season.
But the nucleus of Sam Jacobson, Eric Harris, Courtney James, Quincy Lewis and Charles Thomas is enough to make Minnesota a tournament team next season. How far next year’s team goes could play an important role in the future of the program.
The Gophers are always going to get solid recruits because they have past success, play in the Big Ten and have a nationally respected coach in Clem Haskins. Solid recruits develop into solid teams — and that’s exactly what Minnesota has had during the course of this decade.
It took a special set of circumstances this season to move into the upper echelon: the return of all five starters from last season, extra motivation after being snubbed by the NCAA last year and the heart and hustle of everyone, specifically Big Ten Player of the Year Bobby Jackson.
All of those things came together in one season, and that’s what it takes to start developing an aura. The feeling that a team has reached elite status occurs after repetition.
Does anyone remember Mississippi State? The Bulldogs went to the Final Four last year, but didn’t even make the tourney this season. Same goes for Syracuse. Like those two teams, the Gophers will be without key components of their season.
But they say they’re hungry for next season. They can’t wait for it to start. Obviously, Minnesota players, coaches and fans would like nothing more than to make Final Four appearances a regular occurrence.
Also apparent is that this year’s success can be the type of springboard to make that possible. The Gophers this season were no longer solid. They were spectacular.
The rest of the decade is the key. The Gophers aren’t going to sneak up on anybody. Can Minnesota continue to fuse talent and character to produce a string of seasons to remember?
The vision of John Thomas dancing in San Antonio after the Gophers’ 80-72 win over UCLA is still fresh in everyone’s head. But the steps the team takes in the next few years will be the most important in the long run.