Men’s hoops vows history will not repeat as No. 16

by Todd Zolecki

Don’t get the Gophers men’s basketball team wrong — it enjoys its No. 16 national ranking as much as anyone — it just doesn’t want to cross the line between a confident team and one which expects to win by simply showing up to play.
The team feels good about itself after beating then-No. 10 Clemson on Sunday at the San Juan Shootout. But like the Minnesota team that won the Great Alaska Shootout two years ago, it doesn’t want to take a sudden nosedive soon thereafter.
An athletic Alabama team stands in the Gophers way tonight in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the Gophers want to be sure they’re ready for it.
“Things are going to start to get tougher,” Gophers point guard Eric Harris said. “We can’t relax right now because once you relax that’s when bad things happen.”
Minnesota is now a targeted team and the Crimson Tide intend to take aim and get a good shot.
“Alabama will be set for us,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “All odds are against us to win the game. We’re going against a great team. We’ve been travelling for three days, and we’ll be on the road again. We’re just ripe for the plucking.”
The Gophers know this is the worst time to rest on their laurels. Beating Clemson was big, but they can’t afford to be complacent.
After that game Haskins made sure his players didn’t get too confident. He did his best to deflate any soaring egos.
Four players who won’t need any help are: John Thomas, Sam Jacobson, Trevor Winter and Harris. They know how quickly a No. 16 ranking can evaporate.
The foursome played on the Minnesota team which defeated Arizona, Villanova and Brigham Young to open the season and win the Great Alaska Shootout two years ago.
The Gophers won their first six games that year and earned a No. 16 ranking.
But that’s when the bottom fell out. They lost their next three games, including a 71-50 loss at home to Texas Southern. Minnesota dropped from the polls and never regained its Alaska form. It reached the NCAA tournament, but lost in the opening round to St. Louis.
Harris can’t explain why that team fell to pieces like it did. Haskins said injuries had much to do with it. Jacobson said it was bad chemistry that disabled the team’s winning attitude.
“When we won in Alaska, players came back and got some big heads,” Jacobson said. “The team unity wasn’t there and it started to fall apart. I think Coach remembered that, and he just doesn’t want that to happen to this team.”
Jacobson said chemistry isn’t a problem with this team, and that might help the Gophers avoid the letdown his former team experienced.
“A lot of things aren’t the same,” he said. “No matter what happens, I think everybody is behind everybody else. People are going to have bad nights, and I think everybody realizes that and tries to pick themselves up.”
Harris hopes his experience two years ago will help keep his teammates from making the same type of mistakes as they get deeper into the season.
“We can tell the younger guys about what we’ve been through,” he said. “We need to keep our intensity up during practice. If we do that, I don’t think we’ll have any problems, just as long as we keep our heads straight.”
So far the message seems to be sinking in. Freshman Russ Archambault doesn’t think too much of the Gophers’ ranking.
“It’s just a number really,” he said. “We now have a target on us and teams are going to want to beat us. We just have to play harder.”
Alabama will make sure of that. The Crimson Tide is the type of team Haskins wanted to play in the nonconference season to toughen his players and get them ready for a possible postseason tournament.
“Right now they see we’re 16, and they want to be the 16th team in the nation,” Harris said. “They’re going to come out even more hungry.”
Minnesota hopes its appetite is bigger.