For his own sake, Clem Haskins hopes his Big Ten men’s basketball coaching colleagues are better at evaluating the Gophers’ chances to win the conference championship this year than the media.
During Sunday’s annual media day in Chicago, Minnesota didn’t get the accolades many preseason magazines gave. A poll conducted by the Big Ten media picked the league’s top three teams. The Gophers didn’t make the list. According to the poll, Michigan, Indiana and Iowa are the conference’s best.
But coaches like Wisconsin’s Dick Bennett and Michigan’s Steve Fisher didn’t neglect the Gophers. Most agree they will give Michigan a run for the title.
Many publications picked Minnesota to contend for the Big Ten title. Some even believe the Gophers could win it.
One member of the media asked Indiana coach Bob Knight if the preseason rags hit the mark when they picked Minnesota as a title contender this year.
“The magazines, my god, how could you argue with the magazines?” he asked. “If anybody who writes for a magazine puts somebody in contention, I mean, we’re talking about some of the greatest minds in sports. Absolutely, I have to agree with them. I would have to feel that way. How could I even differ?”
OK, just a touch of sarcasm from the dean of Big Ten coaching. It’s clear he puts more stock into the magazines’ paper than the words that are printed on it.
Some coaches actually read the magazines with interest. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is one of them.
“I think on paper it’s no secret,” he said. “Michigan has a lot of players back and should be the team for all of us to beat. And yet I’ve been amazed looking at all these different magazines where teams are picked because I feel Minnesota is going to be a very good team.”
The knock on the Big Ten this year is if the Gophers are a favorite, then the conference must be down in talent, way down. After the league’s two straight subpar performances in the NCAA tournament, it’s hard to argue that.
Haskins thinks that’s just a sign of disrespect for Minnesota, which returns the Big Ten’s most experienced team.
“I think what happened over the years is the media has picked Indiana as No. 1 or Michigan as No. 1 or some schools like that,” he said. “Then all of a sudden the conference has to be weak or down if you pick Minnesota to win it this year. I refuse to believe that. An attitude has developed over the years about those four or five schools. Give Minnesota credit.”
Penn State coach Jerry Dunn probably asks the same thing. The Lions finished second in the conference last season, 21-7 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten, but some coaches forgot to mention them.
When Bennett gave his preview of the season and forgot to talk about the Lions, one reporter called Bennett on it.
The Badgers coach, in his second Big Ten season, handled it nicely.
“In my case I wish I hadn’t even started naming schools,” he said. “I’m still getting used to the schools in this league. Funny I didn’t mention Butler.”
One thing the coaches and media agree upon is that Michigan is the class of the league. They return players like Louis Bullock, Maurice Taylor and Maceo Baston. But Fisher made it clear, the Gophers are one team very capable of making things tough for them.
“Minnesota has got everybody back,” he said. “To me the difference between Minnesota last year and maybe the year before was (Bobby) Jackson. He’s good. He didn’t know that they weren’t supposed to win on the road. He brought a lot of toughness to that team. They are going to be a very good basketball team. I think they’ll be a contender all season long.”
Bennett has the right idea about it all: Don’t try to figure it out.
“First of all, I think the Big Ten is going to be noticeably improved this year,” he said. “I say that with a degree of certainty. But it’s really hard to project.”