Gophers guards must get U by, or team will waive ‘Goodbye’

It was the kind of play that Bobby Jackson has made a habit of at Minnesota. In a nanosecond, Jackson attacks, steals the ball from his foe’s clutches and sprints to the basket — robber’s ski mask and all — for an easy lay-in.
That’s what Jackson, the Gophers’ heralded senior guard who has emerged as one of the nation’s best at his position, did to Kiwane Garris of Illinois in Minnesota’s skin-of-your-teeth 67-66 victory at Williams Arena on Saturday.
Jackson, along with backcourt criminals Eric Harris and Charles Thomas — the combination leads the Big Ten in steals with nearly 10 per game — are nationally becoming known as thick as thieves. Literally.
“That play was worth the trip alone,” Sports Illustrated senior writer Alex Wolff, here on assignment, said of Jackson’s play. The basketball guru was in town to check out Minnesota and see if he should believe the hype of a No. 2 ranking. Wolff was sold. “They are much more impressive in person,” he said.
Having seen most of the nation’s top guards play, Wolff said Minnesota is deserving of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament when Selection Sunday rolls around Mar. 9. In clinching at least a share of the conference title in the game against the Illini, Minnesota has truly become one of the nation’s elite teams for many reasons, which start with Jackson and Harris.
They continue with Thomas, a reserve, and Sam Jacobson, a forward by trade who can play on the perimeter with the best of them. Minnesota’s guards are what will get them to the dance. And how far the Gophers stay on the floor will depend on how well the guards can keep up their act.
“A lot of teams now run three-guard offenses,” Wolff said. “Duke and UMass are examples. Jacobson is a swingman and like a third guard. They get from point-A to point-B so well.”
If the Gophers’ backcourt can play to their abilities, the team believes they can play with anyone.
“I feel we’re as good as anyone in the country,” Harris said of the Gophers’ backcourt. “We play both sides of the court. I feel personally we can play against anybody.
“That’s what it will come down to. Like Coach (Clem Haskins) says, the team will go as far as the guards lead us.”
That’s why Clem still can’t sleep at night. Nothing gets a coach more anxious than planning for teams he has never played before.
“At 1 or 2 in the morning that’s what I think about,” Haskins said. “Going up against Kentucky. UCLA has a very athletic team. Kansas is outstanding. Wake Forest. Tim Duncan is the best post-up man in the country. That’s what I’m thinking about.”
How Minnesota’s guards stack up against those teams will determine if the Gophers’ season is topped with the Final Four or the season just becomes final, period.
Haskins knows it. So do Harris and Jackson. Oddly though, what Minnesota knows about its guards seems to have eluded everybody else around the country. What the rest don’t know surely won’t hurt the Gophers in the tournament.
But don’t tell that to Illinois. “Without (Harris and Jackson) those guys wouldn’t be where they are today,” Garris said. He should know, too. He’s played against Minnesota twice. He won the first time and nearly did a second.
Garris’ coach, Lon Kruger, agreed. “When you consider everything — running the floor, defense, scoring — (Jackson and Harris) do as much as they can do.”
Come tournament time, the Gophers will need to do what they do — and more. Has Minnesota been tested this year? Illinois proved that small teams with heavy guard rotation give the Gophers fits. But they have stepped up to every challenge and finished with the most important thing you can hope for: a win. That, no one can steal from the Gophers.
— Kristian Pope can be reached at [email protected]