Men’s hoops starts with high hopes

Todd Zolecki

Bobby Jackson sat by his team’s bench at Williams Arena on Tuesday and couldn’t help but let the memory pop into his mind.
The Gophers men’s basketball player recalled his first real practice in a Minnesota uniform. A truly unspectacular debut for a highly touted junior college transfer.
“I definitely don’t want that to happen again,” he said, cracking a smile.
Jackson broke his foot last year during a routine drill. After being sidelined for two months, the guard never hit full stride until the end of the Big Ten season.
“I’m thinking about that now, but hopefully that won’t happen again,” the senior said. “Hopefully I’m through with all my injuries.”
Jackson must remain healthy if the Gophers are to fulfill their expectations for the 1996-97 season. The shooting guard became Minnesota’s most prolific scorer toward the end of last season. He’s expected to continue that performance this year.
Clearly, the Gophers feelings and attitudes are different this season. They’re not talking about trying to win the Big Ten title, they’re talking about actually winning it. They don’t just want to make the NCAA tournament, they want to do something in it.
And yes, uncharacteristically, Coach Clem Haskins is in on the fun. Instead of being cautious, Haskins believes his team is very capable of winning Minnesota’s first conference title since 1982.
Are they as good as the Gophers team that reached the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight in 1990?
“This team is stronger,” he said. “We don’t have a Willie Burton or a Richard Coffey, but we’re a talented team. Willie Burton had no fear. We need Sam (Jacobson) to be like that.”
Fans eyes are still focused on Jacobson, the hometown favorite. But Jackson, John Thomas, Courtney James and others will draw away some of that attention.
This team is more experienced than the one from a year ago. Last year’s team had six newcomers and most of the year was spent breaking them in. The Gophers struggled early, but finished the second half of the Big Ten season, 7-2, the best record in the conference.
Minnesota won’t rely nearly as much on its newcomers this season. Of the three freshman, only point guard Russ Archambault will receive significant playing time.
Forward Kevin Loge is redshirted for the season after he partially severed the fifth finger of his left hand in a shotgun accident. And Haskins said he’ll decide in six weeks whether to redshirt forward Kyle Sanden.
The Gophers are 10 players deep. Jackson, Eric Harris, John Thomas, James and Jacobson make up the starting five. Quincy Lewis, Charles Thomas, Trevor Winter, Miles Tarver and Archambault come off the bench.
Haskins said Lewis is the Gophers’ best overall player. He also said Lewis and Charles Thomas are talented enough to start. Unfortunately, Jacobson stands in front of Lewis, and Jackson stands in front Thomas. But with Haskins, nothing is set in stone.
The Gophers worked hard during the offseason, developing their game and staying in shape. One can see just by looking at them that much of their time was spent in the weight room.
Jacobson is the most noticeable. He looks much stronger. Lewis, Winter and John Thomas also look bigger.
So does James, perhaps too big. He said he needs to lose about 10 pounds before the season starts. His playing weight is about 265 lbs.
Unlike a year ago when the Gophers lost 64 percent of their offense (Voshon Lenard, Townsend Orr, Jayson Walton, Chad Kolander and Ryan Wolf), they have most of their offense still intact.
Minnesota loses three players from last year’s squad. David Grim and Hosea Crittenden are gone, although Crittenden remains on the team as a student coach. Mark Jones, a junior college transfer last year with Jackson, left for Central Florida over the summer. Jones told Haskins he needed guaranteed playing time. Haskins, not surprisingly, balked at the idea.
Haskins has moved on since then. He’s focused on getting his team some rings.
The Gophers appear to be well-rounded with outside scoring, quick post players and big men like James, John Thomas and Winter.
“We’ll be pretty good,” James said.
The national media thinks so. Sporting News named Jackson the Big Ten preseason Player of the Year.
“We can’t get caught up in that,” Jackson said. “That’s all preseason stuff. It all comes down to who plays the hardest and who gets the job done every night.”
His teammates agree.
“The expectations are so high for this team that it’s hard to sit and listen about how good we’re supposed to do,” Winter said. “Everybody just wants to get out there and do it.”