Sub-par season comes to a close

Adam Fink

INDIANAPOLIS ñ- Even after Wisconsin had pulled its starters with more than one minute remaining March 12 in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team kept double-teaming the ball, calling out defensive assignments and playing aggressively overall.

While the outcome had long been decided – the Badgers won 66-52 – this effort level and never-say-die attitude slowly became a trademark for the Gophers.

The Gophers (12-18) lost their first nine Big Ten games and were victorious only twice from Dec. 22 to Feb. 11. The team’s 18 losses were the most since the 1988 season.

However, Minnesota, winner of two of its last three games, played its best basketball at the right time of the season, but only after its fate had been decided.

“I think this was a team that continued to get better,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “We played our best basketball here over the last couple of weeks.”

The Gophers took unusually long to find their roles this season. From recruit Wesley Washington failing to receive admittance to the University and Moe Hargrow leaving the team midseason, Minnesota didn’t find itself until the Big Ten regular season title was out of reach and the year was winding down.

“A lot of it was we didn’t jell quickly enough,” senior forward Michael Bauer said. “At times we would play well. At times we wouldn’t.”

The Gophers also struggled to shoot the ball, couldn’t hold double-digit leads and lacked quickness on the perimeter.

In addition, the normally friendly confines of Williams Arena proved to be a tough place for Minnesota to win. The Gophers’ two home Big Ten wins were the fewest since 1987.

As confidence fell to an unprecedented low, losses began piling up and frustrations mounted.

“These guys did everything we asked for them to do this year except for the win-loss column,” Monson said. “But that’s obviously the one you’re judged by the most as a coach and a player.”

The Gophers won’t need to scratch their heads in search of the few positives from the year.

Minnesota’s defense – a liability earlier in the season – showed great improvement. The Gophers held their last four opponents to a combined shooting percentage of 43.4, down nearly three percentage points from the rest of the season.

Although it would have been painless for Minnesota to have packed up its season in mid-January, the Gophers went to practice upbeat and, for the most part, played hard.

“It would have been easy to throw in the towel a long time ago,” center Jeff Hagen said. “This team came together.”

While the Gophers said they hope to carry over these attributes into next season, at least two regulars won’t be around to witness it.

Bauer, the program’s poster child who arrived on campus in 1999, has used up his eligibility; Ben Johnson has as well. Johnson finished the season as the Gophers’ most consistent shooter, connecting on 51.8 percent of his field goal attempts.

But the big question surrounds freshman forward Kris Humphries. The Big Ten’s freshman of the year and the conference’s leading scorer (21 points per game) and rebounder (9.5 caroms per contest) is projected by as a mid-first-round pick.

However, Humphries was mum about his future after his 12-point (tying his career low), nine-rebound performance against Wisconsin.

“It is something I haven’t looked at yet,” Humphries said after the loss to the Badgers. “I have no clue. To have the time frame, I would have had to been focusing on that throughout this time. I haven’t done that.”

Despite leaving Hopkins High School as a highly touted recruit, the 6-foot-9-inch forward couldn’t get Minnesota to the National Invitational Tournament for the fourth consecutive year, let alone the NCAA Tournament.