His heart didn’t beat quite as fast this time. Unlike a year ago, Gophers men’s basketball player Courtney James knew his team had a spot in the NCAA tournament. Only one question needed to be answered: Did the tournament selection committee think enough of the Gophers’ Big Ten championship season and 27-3 record to make them one of four top seeds?
Yes, they did. The Gophers learned Sunday evening it is the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional. It opens the tournament Friday against Southwest Texas State (16-12) in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena.
James hopes this is the first step to return to Indianapolis, his hometown, where the Final Four takes place. The Gophers must win four games to reach the Final Four.
It couldn’t have worked out any better for junior Eric Harris, who watched the selection show with his team and a large group of supporters at the Radisson Hotel Metrodome.
“That’s the greatest scenario,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been working for all season. Once we had the Big Ten championship wrapped up, we pushed for a No. 1 seed.”
Sophomore forward Quincy Lewis described his emotions as joy, relief and happiness. A year ago the team’s dream for a tournament berth was denied despite finishing with an 18-12 regular season record and 10-8 in the Big Ten. Instead, it settled for the National Invitational Tournament, in which it lost in the second round to Tulane.
“Last year we were sweating bullets,” Harris said. “It was different emotions this year.”
Junior forward Sam Jacobson said that rejection provided some motivation to play hard all season.
“We knew we had a great ballclub and coming into this season we wanted to improve our game as a team,” he said. “And basically that paid off by being a No. 1 seed.”
As the Gophers’ name appeared on a giant-screen TV, players cheered and expressed their excitement. They believed they were worthy of a top seed all along but didn’t know for sure. They lost the Big Ten season finale to Wisconsin on Saturday, which cast some doubt on the situation.
As it turns out, it didn’t matter. This wasn’t one of the Gophers’ goals heading into the season, but it was a nice perk for the best record in school history. The Gophers said they set three goals for themselves before the season: winning 20 games, capturing the school’s first Big Ten title in 15 years and going on to win the national championship.
If the Gophers win Friday, they’ll play either Mississippi or Temple on Sunday. The other top seeds in the Midwest bracket are No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Cincinnati and No. 4 Clemson. The Gophers beat Clemson, 75-65, to win the San Juan Shootout earlier this season.
“We know it’s not going to be easy,” senior Bobby Jackson said. “We can’t go into it too relaxed. We know everybody is going to try and knock us out. There are some great teams in the region.”
The coaching staff has been looking at video tapes of about eight teams it thought it might face in the opening round. It guessed right and looked at tapes of the Bobcats.
Now the Gophers will get into more detail and prepare the players. James said that the learning process will start Sunday night and continue until Friday.
Haskins isn’t too worried about the Gophers being affected by the pressure of a No. 1 seed in the tournament, or the media crush that will come upon them should they go far in the tournament.
“That’s always a major concern if you don’t have mature guys,” Haskins said. “Those things don’t phase this team. I think our guys are very mature.”
Notes: The ticket office number for the first two rounds of the Midwest Regional in Kansas City is (913) 864-3141. Tickets are still available for $120 for the three-session, six-game package. Tickets are not available through the Gophers’ ticket office.