Hoop dreaming?

Can oft-disappointed Gopher fans believe in this year’s men’s basketball squad? There’s hope for March.

WeâÄôre shedding thousands of jobs. The state is broke, with the federal government not far behind. Even our beloved Science Classroom Building is crumbling before our eyes. We have but one refuge in these troubled times, and it comes from an unlikely source: Gophers menâÄôs basketball. LetâÄôs think back a few years to the âÄô06-âÄô07 dark times: 9-22, Dan Monson being shown the door mid-season. Your correspondent and his companion, Bill Cleveland, trudging their way through the bitter cold to sit in a mostly-empty Barn âÄî grim memories, indeed. Blowout losses, embarrassment and much wailing and gnashing of teeth filled Williams Area as Coach Jim Molinari deftly led the Gophers to the depths. It seems like an eternity ago, eh? After ThursdayâÄôs home beat-down of 20th-ranked Illinois, it might actually be time to believe in the Gophers. ThatâÄôs an odd idea, surely, but at this point itâÄôs tough to deny that this team has a shot to make real noise in March. As recently as two weeks ago, that didnâÄôt appear so certain. Riding high off four straight conference wins, the Gophers headed east to Northwestern for what was supposed to be a gimmie: The Wildcats were winless in the Big Ten and didnâÄôt appear to be in line to make any noise this season. One disastrous second half later, those of us who had made the trip to Evanston were left to wander aimlessly out of town and ponder parallels with this yearâÄôs football team. An ugly loss to a solid Purdue team a few days later didnâÄôt help matters. After all, Gophers football had been in just this situation a few months prior: flying high, creeping up the rankings, making postseason noise. And it had been a stomach-punch loss to Northwestern (on a late Adam Weber pick returned for a score) that sent the Gophers into a death spiral, finally culminating in an ugly loss in an insignificant bowl game. Sure, it was quite an improvement over last yearâÄôs one-win, cover-your-eyes performance âÄî but five straight losses is a bitter pill to swallow in any circumstance. And so, after the back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Purdue, we looked to be in âÄúhere-we-go-againâÄù territory. But then a funny thing happened: The Gophers started to pull out of their funk. They scratched out a road win (albeit one closer than it should have been) over a last-place Indiana team, then came home for the showdown with Illinois. By now, youâÄôve heard the story âÄî how the Gophers hadnâÄôt beaten the Illini in a decade, yadda, yadda, yadda. It was exactly the sort of game that an experienced Gopher fan should have expected Minnesota to lose. But they didnâÄôt, of course. After a first half that was either ugly or beautiful depending on how you feel about low-scoring basketball games, the Gophers came out and flat dominated Illinois in the second half. In total, the Illini scored 36 points on 29 percent shooting âÄî just staggering numbers that showcased the best of this yearâÄôs Gophers squad. This is a serious defensive team that can keep itself in games by grinding things out. Now, 29 percent from the floor might be a bit extreme, but the Illini werenâÄôt missing truckloads of open looks. Instead, the Gophers defense was challenging every shot, hassling the backcourt, and totally snuffing out IllinoisâÄô inside game. No Illini scored in double figures, and 7-foot-1-inch center Mike Tisdale was a complete non-factor (thanks especially to Ralph Sampson IIIâÄôs work down low). The Gophers werenâÄôt lighting it up offensively, either, but they completely stifled IllinoisâÄô attack. And just like that, the Gophers are back on track. Instead of folding when things got hairy, they notched their most impressive conference win and played their best game since taking down Louisville in late December. Quite out of character for Gophers teams of recent vintage, to be sure. This team has come a long way in a few months. The aforementioned Sampson suddenly looks comfortable down low. Damian Johnson has stopped taking jump shots and instead gets to the rim with regularity, Al Nolen is having a fantastic year at the point, and, of course, Lawrence Westbrook is around, ready to plunge the dagger when needed. The path gets tougher starting now, though. Four of the next five are on the road, including the tough upcoming pair against Michigan State and Ohio State. If the Gophers can scrape out wins in three of their last five road games, things will be looking awfully good. (The remaining home slate is nowhere near as intimidating.) So, for long-suffering Gophers basketball fans âÄî the Steph Plants, Justin Sevolds and Dorothy Chengs of the world âÄî there is finally reason for optimism. A bit of meaningful postseason basketball would be a wonderful thing. Of course, this team still has plenty of room for improvement. Freshman Colton Iverson has been showing signs of life lately, and if Blake Hoffarber can start hitting his 3âÄôs again (heâÄôs down to 36 percent, from 43 percent last year) things could get really interesting. The Barn still fills with terror when anyone but Nolan handles the ball for extended periods in the backcourt, but hopefully that can be rectified soon. The Gophers havenâÄôt been invited to the NCAA tournament since 2005 âÄî things had gotten so bad that last yearâÄôs NIT appearance felt like a serious victory. But with Tubby Smith and this core of young players (Jamal Abu-Shamala is the only senior that plays significant minutes), itâÄôs finally reasonable to believe. Unless, of course, I just jinxed the entire endeavor by writing this thing now, in which case feel free to hold me responsible for anything horrific that should happen between now and March âĦ John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]