Rickert expected to decide hoops future in a week

Anthony Maggio

Minnesota’s men’s basketball team never got a taste of National Invitational Tournament victory while in Madison Square Garden.

The Gophers (19-14) lost two games in New York, and couldn’t even get a lead while in town. Minnesota managed to tie Texas Tech on Thursday night with 5:35 to play, but lost the consolation game to the Red Raiders 71-61 to end a season that never delivered on its promise.

“I thought that game was kind of a microcosm of our season,” coach Dan Monson said. “We had a very frustrating start, climbed our way back in, and yet just like all season, we couldn’t get over that last hurdle.”

With the season now over, the attention is now solely on forward Rick Rickert, who is deciding whether he should enter the NBA draft, or come back to the Gophers for his junior season.

The 6-foot-11 sophomore said after Thursday’s game he doesn’t know if he’s leaning toward either side, but did say he plans on deciding within a week.

The players and coaches around Rickert don’t know what he plans to do, but all say they will support him either way. The coaching staff just wants Rickert to make an informed choice.

“We’re not trying to influence him either way, we want him to do what’s best,” assistant coach Bill Walker said. “It’s a 50-year decision either way. He needs to listen to people he trusts.”

Obviously for Minnesota, the team would be better next season with Rickert still present. Rickert’s scoring and rebounding both improved this season, as he averaged 15.8 points and 6.4 boards per contest.

But Michael Bauer said: “He doesn’t owe anything to us anymore. Each season is a one year commitment to our team. If he moves on after this year then everyone wishes him well.”

Rickert finished with just eight points on 3-of-12 shooting, his lowest total since scoring the same against Oregon on December 22.

Rickert was voted First Team All-Big Ten by the conference coaches this season, and second team by the media. But along with his teammates, his lack of strength was his biggest obstacle all year.

“Obviously that’s the most glaring thing,” Walker said. “If you look at our 14 losses this year, Northwestern is the only team that beat us that wasn’t stronger than us.”

While strength is Minnesota’s top priority, Rickert’s return could play a large part in the Gophers success next season.

“Obviously if you have a player of (Rickert’s) caliber it makes a huge difference,” Monson said. “I know maybe it sounds like I’m making excuses because we lost and didn’t have the year maybe we’re capable of, but while we still have another year of probation, we still have our foundation, and Rick certainly helps.”

Minnesota loses Jerry Holman, Kevin Burleson and possibly Rickert. In addition, the Gophers will still have one less scholarship next season, the last year of the program’s probation.

But with the emergence of Maurice Hargrow this season, who boosted his scoring average to 13.4 points per game from just 3.6 last year, the Gophers have a solid scorer along with Bauer returning.

Ben Johnson, Steve Esselink, Aaron Robinson and Jeff Hagen also showed improvement this season, and Minnesota will also add redshirt center Aliou Kane, transfer point guard Adam Boone and freshman guard Wesley Washington.

But another year of Rickert in a Gophers uniform will probably be the biggest factor in Minnesota possibly returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.

That said, Gophers fans and players alike will be holding their breath for one more week.