Win over the Spartans proves that Monson deserves more time

Minnesota showed grit Saturday in its upset win over Michigan State.

Matt Anderson

When he was announced to the crowd before Minnesota’s men’s basketball team’s game against Michigan State, faint boos rained down from Williams Arena onto coach Dan Monson.

After the Gophers’ 69-55 win over the Spartans, Monson entered the media room to applause from his family. Such is the life of a Big Ten coach with a 3-7 conference record.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had applause at any press conference, but I love my family, so I shouldn’t apologize,” Monson said after receiving his standing ovation. “That’s about all I’ve had lately. I think they probably came for support, then all of a sudden, I’ve got other people, too.”

Considering the situation Monson stepped into, he should have had a better reaction than the one he’s received from those outside his family this season ” media and fans calling for him to be fired.

Monson walked into the mouth of the lion when he took the Minnesota job in 1999. The mess of a program that Clem Haskins left didn’t have much going for it. The team had been decimated by the academic scandal. Without its full compliment of scholarships, the team was down players and underneath an incredibly dark cloud.

Each year under Monson, the Gophers made progress; from 12-16 in 1999-2000, to the NIT the next year, to contending for an NCAA Tournament berth the next two. The program took a step back in 2003-2004 with a 12-18 record, but got back to the NCAAs last year.

Heading into this season, Monson had undertaken a near-impossible rebuilding job and made positive strides each year barring the 2003-2004 campaign, culminating with the NCAA Tournament last season.

That should have been enough to give him a one-year grace period. Earning an appearance at the NCAAs last season with the talent he had should have placed Monson above criticism this year.

But the Gophers started the Big Ten season 0-6, and the critics were howling for Monson’s head. Then, Monson inserted walk-ons Zach Puchtel and Jamal Abu-Shamala into the starting lineup Jan. 29 against Indiana ” a risky move for a coach with dwindling job security.

But it turned out to be a savvy one. Minnesota is 3-1 with wins over top-25 opponents Indiana and Michigan State with Puchtel and Abu-Shamala starting. And in the one loss, the Gophers hung with No. 12 Ohio State for the better part of 40 minutes in Columbus, Ohio.

No less an authority than Michigan State coach Tom Izzo ” who has been to four Final Fours and won a national championship ” liked the move.

“Those of you that spend time ripping Dan Monson had better give him some credit for what he’s done,” Izzo said, “because he had the courage to put in a guy like (former Michigan State walk-on) Tim Bograkos, and teach people that if you play hard, good things happen to you.”

The move to start Puchtel and Abu-Shamala wasn’t an obvious one; it clearly was the right one.

It’s turned a season in which Minnesota was playing lifelessly and staring at no postseason into a season with the NIT well-within the Gophers’ reach and an exciting brand of basketball being played.

Against Michigan State, Puchtel made a diving tip on a pass ticketed for a Spartans fast-break basket and Abu-Shamala scored the first four Minnesota baskets on a pair of midrange jumpers.

The Gophers have six regular-season Big Ten games left. It will take just two more wins to secure NIT eligibility and likely a six-for-six finish to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.

Is a finishing sweep unlikely? Yes.

But just four games ago, three conference wins in four games seemed unlikely.

“We know that we still have a lot of Big Ten play left,” senior forward J’son Stamper said. “And as long as we continue to fight and do what we know we can do, we’ll be fine. Indiana was just the start of something special.”

Thanks to that something special, Monson looks to have earned himself at least one more well-deserved year at the helm of Minnesota men’s basketball.

Matt Anderson welcomes comments at [email protected]