1996 was a bleak year for the University. From assorted institutional crises to another woeful season for the football team, Minnesota boosters didn’t have much to cheer about. But with the new year comes a new University president, a new football coach and a renewed sense of optimism. Of course, there’s a new $100 million lawsuit too, but that’s for another day. And while it’s the potential for positive change that fuels a sunnier outlook, there’s one bright spot at the University these days whose potential is already materializing — the men’s basketball team.
When Coach Clem Haskins started talking about winning the Big Ten before the season even began, it raised more than a few eyebrows. By all accounts, this year’s team is better than the ’95-’96 squad, but a conference title? The Gophers don’t have any major stars — no Willie Burton or Voshon Lenard. They didn’t even make the NCAA tournament last year and were embarrassed in the second round of the NIT. Most spectators assumed Haskins was just talking big to motivate the team. He was dead serious.
A week into the Big Ten schedule, the Gopher hoopsters are 13-1 overall, 2-0 in the conference. With the exception of a 3-point loss at Alabama more than a month ago, the Gophers have dominated their opponents — they even posted a record 80-point margin of victory in a Dec. 23 114-34 rout of Alabama State. The team is ranked 15th in the AP poll and 11th in the USA Today-CNN poll. Haskins has even kept his jacket on in a few games. As basketball pundits across the nation begin to regard Minnesota as a serious contender, the hearts of local fans, jaded by years of mediocrity, have experienced a rare January thaw.
But more inspiring than the simple fact that the Gophers are winning is the way in which they are winning. Without any bona fide superstar, the hoopsters rely on good old-fashioned teamwork to rack up victories. That may sound clichÇd, but in a sports culture that rewards individual performance above all, a team that works so well together is rare on any level. As deep off the bench as any Minnesota team in memory, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the starters from the third string. The combination of smart play, hustle and heart throughout the roster is nothing less than a joy to behold.
While dazzling moves by individual players can be awesome, there are few things in sports as artful as a basketball team working in harmony. When the Gophers set foot on the court, they seem to be of one mind — what Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, a great proponent of selfless play, describes as working like five fingers on one hand. Offense, defense, transition game, boards — the Gophers seem to have no weakness because they don’t rely on a star to always come up with the big play.
If the hoopsters keep playing as they have — and there’s nothing to suggest that they won’t — Haskins’ preseason prediction of a Big Ten championship could easily become reality. A Big Ten win traditionally means a top tournament seed and a fast track to the Sweet Sixteen, if not the Final Four. But don’t mistake that for a premature victory dance. We hope the basketball Gophers will have a lengthy post season for no other reason than the continuing chance to watch this magnificent team in action.