Rickert fueling renewed optimism

Anthony Maggio

This season there are no excuses. After two NIT appearances and two second-round exits the last two seasons, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team has higher expectations.

But this year the expectations aren’t only rooted in preseason speeches or bulletin board fodder. This year, thanks to a combination of preseason player of the year Rick Rickert and a core of returning players,

Big Ten coaches expect to see the Gophers battle for the top spot in the conference – and an NCAA tournament berth.

“Rickert is probably the best player in the league,” Indiana head coach Mike Davis said. “And when you’ve got the best player in the league, anything can happen. We saw it last year with Jared Jeffries and look what we did. To me, that gives them the advantage off the bat.”

Minnesota and Indiana shared a second place rank by Big Ten coaches in the preseason poll. The Gophers haven’t dealt with high expectations from anyone but themselves since being banned from NCAA and NIT play in the 1999-2000 season.

Still, Minnesota coach Dan Monson doesn’t think preseason accolades improve his squad’s chances of their first NCAA tournament bid in his tenure as Gophers coach.

“I don’t think it’s any more realistic than last year and last year we didn’t do it,” head coach Dan Monson said. “I think we’re in the same position. Last year’s opportunity is gone, but this one’s still here.”

Many Big Ten coaches think Minnesota is a major threat because of the matchup problems it creates all over the floor.

Ohio State coach Jim O’Brien said the Gophers are the most “rangy” team on his team’s schedule.

The ability of forwards such as Rickert and Michael Bauer to play away from the basket gives conference coaches headaches when preparing for Minnesota.

In addition, players such as Moe Hargrow and Jerry Holman have their first year of Big Ten play under their belt. Meanwhile, Ben Johnson and Jeff Hagen, among others, come back from a year of hiatus to give Minnesota the depth it has lacked for a few seasons.

“Minnesota has a lot of younger players who a lot of people feel are ready to burst on the scene in a big way,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.

Rickert, who burst onto the scene in a big way last season, is the biggest key to an NCAA berth for the Gophers this season.

But he doesn’t put much stock in the preseason hype he’s receiving, at least from an individual perspective.

“It’s a great honor but something that is just a preseason thing,” Rickert said. “Right now our goal is obviously to win the Big Ten and that can’t affect my approach or our approach to the season whatsoever. We’re just working to be a productive team and do well in the Big Ten.”

Last season, Minnesota was the best team in the Big Ten regular season standings to not make the NCAA tournament.

The Gophers, who finished sixth in the conference, were snubbed while Ohio State, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan State all made the tournament.

Now Minnesota must find a way to make preseason predictions a postseason reality so it won’t need to worry about coming up with a good reason for missing out on a bit of March Madness.

“There wasn’t an excuse last year, there wasn’t an excuse the year before,” Monson said. The only excuse we’ve ever had is the year they banned us.

“There’s not a team in America right now that doesn’t have that goal of trying to make the NCAA tournament.”

Anthony Maggio covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]