Attitude propels the Gophers to Sweet Sixteen

Todd Zolecki

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Gophers men’s basketball team won its first two games of the NCAA tournament and believes it has the right attitude to win the national championship. It talks about maturity, focus and determination. Three components needed for such a task.
So far the Gophers’ approach has proven beneficial. They reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1990, and with two more wins this week in San Antonio, they can become the first Minnesota team to advance past the Elite Eight.
But this team believes it can go much further than that. They just don’t want to make the Final Four. They want it all.
Gophers coach Clem Haskins likes that temperament. Only four Minnesota players have NCAA tournament experience (John Thomas, Trevor Winter, Sam Jacobson and Eric Harris) prior to this season, but he sees maturity where they lack NCAA experience.
“This is a focused group of young men,” he said. “We’ve won a lot of big games. We’ve had some guys with experience. Not a lot, but I think it really does get us ready. It’s all a mindset. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior, have played for four years on national television or not. It’s the individual. I like this group of young men. They will not panic. They are very confident.”
Players say they’re not crossing the fine line between confidence and cockiness. After Minnesota shellacked Southwest Texas State on Friday, 76-48, players didn’t get too excited. They won their first round game against an No. 16 seed, something everyone expected them to do.
“We’re not overconfident,” Harris said after that game. “We didn’t accomplish anything yet. Until we win our next five games, then we can celebrate.
“We’re on a mission. There’s a lot of top teams getting knocked off in the tournament so we just knew we had a target on our chest.”
The team has worked hard to make sure that won’t happen to them.
Haskins said the Gophers had some of their best practices of the season leading up to the first round game. Players said that refocus is a direct result of losing to Wisconsin at end the Big Ten season.
Up to that point, the Gophers had won 12 games in a row. They had wrapped up the Big Ten title and were waiting to see who they would play in the tournament. Once they knew who, when and where they played, they went back to work.
“I wouldn’t say we were bored or anything, but this is a fun time,” Harris said. “We knew one loss and we’re out of here, so I think that a lot of guys stepped up their play 100 percent.”
The pressure of being a No. 1 seed hasn’t bothered the players yet. Haskins thinks the players’ maturity will help them overcome it.
“The guys won’t feel complete until they win a national championship,” he said.
Players feel some pressure, but not more than anybody else.
“The pressure is there (for every team),” Winter said. “But (Friday’s win) takes a lot of the stress off. Regardless of all the close games we’ve played this still shows we can play.”
The Gophers didn’t play error-free Friday, but they played good enough to make Temple coach John Chaney think twice about playing Minnesota.
“I picked them to go to the Final Four, even against us,” he said. “So I’m looking forward to going home (Sunday).”
The Gophers made Chaney a profit.