NCAA berth possible for ‘U’ amid Georgia scandal

Brian Stensaas

Ironic, isn’t it? On the morning Dan Monson’s Gonzaga basketball team defeated Minnesota in the 1999 NCAA tournament, then-Gophers coach Clem Haskins was first receiving news his scandalous secret was out, ultimately spelling his doom as a coach.

Monson, meanwhile, had taken a Bulldogs team from nowhere into the depths of March Madness in a matter of two years. In a twist of fate, he would become headman for Minnesota months later inheriting a team filled with question marks in the wake of the scandal.

The stage was set for a fairy tale that would bring Minnesota back to the glory days without breaking rules. Banners torn down from the Williams Arena rafters would reappear.

So where’s the happy ending?

It now appears Monson and Co. might make the NCAA cut after another team’s academic scandal.

Monday’s announcement that No. 21 Georgia will withdraw from the SEC and NCAA tournament after an internal investigation revealed three players took a made up class taught by assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr. could put the Gophers in the 65-team field.

Monday night, ESPN.com projected Minnesota as an 11 seed in the East rather than out of the bracket.

The Gophers haven’t danced, officially, since 1990 and the misfortune of another might now be their only hope after a less than memorable season.

Go ahead and complain about this year’s schedule. No one will deny that having to play Illinois and Indiana in those teams’ respective Assembly Halls back-to-back is a daunting task.

But not for one second should Minnesotans blame the scheduling powers that be for what still might be the Gophers’ latest trip to the NIT.

It’s simple: Minnesota has underachieved.

Monson was extraordinary in his tenure at Gonzaga. He guided the team to a 52-17 record in his two seasons as head coach, including an appearance in the 1999 Elite Eight.

In three-plus Minnesota seasons, Monson’s teams have mustered a 64-54 record, including a pair of one-and-done showings in the Big Ten tournament.

In his final season for the Bulldogs, Monson not only won with a group of virtual no names, but it took eventual NCAA-champ Connecticut to stop them.

Now, Monson has home-grown powers like Michael Bauer, Rick Rickert and Jerry Holman leading Minnesota.

They are big, standing at an average of 6-feet-7 inches, yet can’t seem to rebound when it matters.

Off the court, Monson lured Rickert away from Arizona despite fallout from the Haskins academic scandal: seven lost scholarships, lost recruiting days, evaluation days and official visits.

The repercussions from the scandal will still be felt for another academic year. It might just be another season limping toward the finish.

The Gophers have been inconsistent at best, winning four straight in February before going on their four-game skid heading into Thursday’s conference tournament tilt with Northwestern.

Meanwhile, a pass-happy Wisconsin continues to win on a regular basis. The Badgers won the regular season title and are on the way to a fifth-straight appearance in the Big Dance.

At 41, Monson has a lot of coaching left. He’s signed at Minnesota through 2006 and after reportedly accepting and then declining an offer to coach at Washington last April said he had “unfinished business” with the Gophers.

Whether or not it’s happily ever after remains a mystery.

Brian Stensaas welcomes comments at [email protected]