Season of near misses comes to close

by Jabari Ritchie

Minnesota’s men’s basketball season came to a fitting end as the Gophers fell to Richmond in the second round of the NIT on March 18.

Just as the Gophers looked to be in range of the Spiders with a three-point deficit and time running off the game clock, Minnesota guard Kerwin Fleming drove to the basket and missed a lay-up.

Williams Arena was silent after the shock of the Gophers’ 67-66 loss, but the game was much like the rest of Minnesota’s up-and-down season: close, but not quite good enough.

“We were close in a lot of things,” said Big Ten freshman of the year Rick Rickert, whose team was likely one win away from an NCAA berth and lost four conference games by five points or less. “But almost doesn’t count.”

Despite surpassing last season’s 5-11 Big Ten mark with its first winning conference record since head coach Dan Monson took over in 1999, a hot start left the Gophers disappointed at their second straight NIT bid.

After jumping off to a 7-3 conference start with the help of a four-game winning streak that included double-digit wins over Big Ten co-champions Indiana and Ohio State, Minnesota found itself with a chance to move into a first place tie with a win at Northwestern.

Then the Gophers troubles began, as Minnesota dropped three straight and lost four of its last six regular-season games.

Facing Illinois at home to end the regular season, the Gophers built a four-point lead with 20 seconds left and possession of the ball but managed to blow their shot at a 10-6 record and almost certain NCAA berth.

The Illini ended Minnesota’s hopes for good a week later with a 92-76 blowout victory in the conference tournament.

“This was a fun group to coach,” Monson said after Monday’s loss. “They were a very coachable group and yet, very frustrating because you want great kids like that to get more out of their year than we actually ended up with.”

In the end, the Gophers wound up just where they did last year, with a nearly identical overall record and a second-round NIT exit, but Minnesota still appears to be a team on the rise.

The Gophers beat three ranked teams this season and posted wins over the NCAA Final Four qualifier Hoosiers and Oregon, which reached the Elite Eight. Minnesota also earned Big Ten freshman and defensive player of the year awards for the first time, with Rickert and guard Travarus Bennett being honored.

With four players who played more than 20 minutes per game returning and the addition of two promising recruits at forward and former Northwestern star guard Ben Johnson, next year’s squad will be shooting for a conference title.

Rebounding and defense look to be Minnesota’s biggest question marks heading into next season. Senior forward Dusty Rychart and Bennett were the teams leading rebounders, and Bennett grabbed a conference-leading 75 steals.

“We have a lot of work to do,” junior forward Jerry Holman said. “But a plus is most of the players are coming back and the guys are more experienced now, so we are going to be a lot better coming in next year.”

Johnson, junior co-captain Kevin Burleson and freshman Maurice Hargrow will form a solid group of guards while the Gophers seem to have more forwards than they can handle.

Rickert – who led the team with 14.2 points per game – sophomore co-captain Michael Bauer and Holman each started at least 13 games and combined for 32.4 points per game.

The three also blocked 107 shots while Rickert and Bauer led the team with 40 three-pointers each.

“(Rickert) is going to be the foundation and the center block for this team’s future,” Rychart said. “I know he is going to work hard and I know the rest of the guys are too. They will have a great foundation to work with next year and they will have a great season.”

ï Monson, rumored to be a candidate for the open coaching job at the University of Washington, has not been contacted for the position, said Minnesota men’s athletics director Tom Moe.

Monson, who has posted a 48-43 record and two NIT appearances in three seasons with the Gophers turned down the Huskies two years ago and has a contract through 2006.

Jabari Ritchie covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]