and Tim Klobuchar
CHICAGO — The Gophers-Northwestern game that opened the inaugural Big Ten tournament didn’t exactly get the conference’s new baby off to a rousing start.
There were more empty seats than occupied ones at the United Center, making it difficult for some players to maintain the intensity they normally have no problem reaching in the packed houses of the Big Ten.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Minnesota guard Eric Harris said after the Northwestern game. “The crowd gets us going at home but it was dull out there at times today.”
One day later, however, Indiana and Purdue had no such problem in their quarterfinal game. A capacity crowd of 21,711 was split between the two intrastate rivals, diluting some of the potential noise, but the game was still exactly what the Big Ten was hoping for — a close game (won by Purdue 76-71) between mortal enemies in front of an excited crowd.
“It was intense,” Hoosiers forward Andrae Patterson said. “You could feel the electricity out there. It was nothing compared to what it is like in Bloomington or (West) Lafayette, but it was fun.”
Guts before Glory
Granted, the Gophers have Sam Jacobson, Eric Harris and Quincy Lewis, a trio of proven players under pressure. But after that, Minnesota’s roster is far removed from the one that propelled it to the Final Four a year ago.
That shifts some of the focus this year to coach Clem Haskins, who has managed to coax a probable NIT berth out of a team with sub-par depth and talent.
“When you have a team that isn’t as deep as we’ve been in the past, you just can’t make as many mistakes,” Haskins said. “I’ve tried to do my best with my staff so we don’t make any mistakes.
“Last year was a great year, but I expected to win. I wanted to win the national championship. This year, we’re good enough to be .500, and we made it to .500.”
Haskins followed that up with some good-natured self-congratulation. But he wasn’t so much patting himself on the back as he was pointing out that it’s the performance of the players that usually determines where the coaching awards are delivered.
“As a coach you get those awards, and I got them all last year,” Haskins said with a laugh. “It was great, and I don’t want to give any back. But I think maybe I should have been voted coach of the year this year.”
According to media reports, Indiana is faced with the choice of suspending coach Bob Knight for one game or paying a $10,000 fine for comments he made regarding official Ted Valentine after Valentine ejected Knight from a Feb. 24 loss against Illinois. Indiana has until today to make a decision about the Big Ten’s ruling, and will probably appeal.
In the meantime, the feisty Knight is being extra careful. After the Hoosiers’ first-round win against Ohio State, the coach talked about his team’s preparation for the tournament that he has long opposed.
“Once it was decided, we’ve been trying to find the best way to approach the tournament,” Knight said. “We’ve worked like hell — wait, could you do me one favor? Could you strike out the word, hell,’ because that might be unsportsmanlike conduct.”
The King of All Media
Miles Tarver was freed from his shackles of silence this weekend, as the doors to the Gophers’ locker room were opened to the media. Tarver had been banned by Haskins from speaking with the press earlier this season after making comments about, among other things, Minnesota sinking like the Titanic.
But Tarver made up for lost time with a string of zingers after the Michigan State game.
ù On making the defensive play of the game, knocking the ball out of Andre Hutson’s hands on an inbounds play in the closing seconds:
“It was all me. See these hands? This is Allstate. You’re in good hands with Allstate.”
ù On whether he was worried about having to play games on consecutive days:
“I actually like it a lot better, not having the off days. I hate practice, that’s why. I’d like the schedule to be like this, to play 30 games in a row.”
ù On Eric Harris, who had just returned to the locker room after scoring a season-high 29 points, 23 in the first half:
“There he is now. I might have to go over there and touch his hand. Maybe some of it will rub off on me.”
ù On Jason Stanford, who played the two finest games of his Gophers career at United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls:
“This is where (Michael) Jordan plays, so I guess he wanted to make an impression on (general manager) Jerry Krause.”
ù On his missed layup in the second half, with the Gophers trying to protect a one-point lead:
“That was a case of me thinking I could jump higher than I can. I tried to dunk it and my legs said,No, Miles.'”
ù On Minnesota’s flimsy inside presence this weekend, consisting of himself, Stanford and Kyle Sanden:
“We’re a triple-team. After this, we’re going to assume our World Wrestling Federation careers.”
ù On his year of prep school in Maine, and how it prepared him for the rigors of Big Ten play:
“I got 1100 on my SATs. I’m versatile.”
Miles, don’t ever change.
Off the dribble
ù Harris passed the 1,000-point barrier with his 26th point during Friday’s win over Michigan State. He is the 32nd Gopher to pass that milestone.
ù Michigan State has lost two games in a row for the first time all season. The Spartans were 16-0 in games in which they scored 70 or more points. They scored more than 70 in each of their last two losses.
ù Estimated number of times CBS cut away to Michigan center Robert Traylor’s deliriously happy grandmother in the stands at the United Center: 629.