Gophers as underdogs? Don't be silly

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 17, 2010 - 11:17 PM
Damian Johnson
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The Gophers' Damian Johnson

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MILWAUKEE - It's such a perfect made-for-March story line. In a tale of cohesiveness and grit, an overlooked bunch of kids rallies from the depths of their conference to make a dash for glory.

Yes, it's Our Gophers who are declaring themselves valiant overachievers now that they've snuck in through the fire exit at the back of the Big Dance. Gifted with an 11th seed in the NCAA tournament, they'll face sixth-seeded Xavier in Milwaukee on Friday.

This is a wonderful script, as long as you don't think too hard about the Gophers' self-proclaimed underdog status. Because if you think about it, embracing them as underdogs requires the same willing suspension of disbelief as watching an M. Night Shyamalan flick.

The Gophers are underdogs? Only in the malleable minds of boosters who think maroon sweatshirts are formal wear.

Let's compare these teams:

• Xavier is coached by a rookie who got his job only because his predecessors bail out for bigger paychecks as soon as they can. Chris Mack's salary is probably supplemented by free Skyline chili. Friday, for the first time, he'll be a head coach in an NCAA tournament game.

He'll be facing Tubby Smith, who makes millions of dollars a year and has taken four programs to the NCAA tournament. In fact, he's taken four programs to the tournament at least twice, and he won it all with Kentucky in 1998.

Let's hope Tubby The Titan doesn't allow himself, or his team, to pretend to be overmatched in this game.

• The Gophers play in a power conference, the Big Ten. Xavier plays in the Atlantic 10.

Which team has a better chance of being battle-hardened by conference play -- the team that played Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin, or the team that played Duquesne and St. Joe's?

Sure, the Atlantic 10 has good teams, including Xavier and Richmond. The difference is the Big Ten is filled with teams that should be good every year; the Atlantic 10 is filled with teams that must overachieve to qualify for an NCAA tournament bid.

• Minnesota beat Butler. Xavier lost to Butler.

• The Gophers' key players all participated in the NCAA tournament last year. Xavier's best player, Jordan Crawford, is a transfer from Indiana.

• The Gophers get to play in Milwaukee's Bradley Center, the closest thing to a home court they could find in this tournament. Xavier, the higher seed, somehow was rewarded by having to face a capable team with a home-court advantage.

In light of their good fortune and obvious advantages, here's my advice to the Gophers as they conduct news conferences in Milwaukee on Thursday: Show a little pride. Show a little class. Show a little maturity.

Instead of crowing about earning "respect" with three victories in the Big Ten tournament, instead of crowing about silencing critics, say something like this:

"We played in the tournament last year. We expected to get back to the tournament this year. We didn't play as well as we should have for much of the year, but we finally put together a stretch in the Big Ten tournament where we played like we know we can play.

"We play in a strong conference. We have a big-time coach. We have quality seniors. We have depth. We should play well. And if we don't, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves."

Isn't it strange that athletics, supposedly the province of the tough, might be the only place we hear more whining and excuse-making than in the halls of Congress?

The Gophers should break the mold. Instead of complaining about a lack of respect, they should tell us they're grateful to have a berth, and they intend on doing something with it.

The Gophers should have the good taste to consider themselves favorites Friday. Given their experience, their depth and the pedigree of their coach, they have no excuse not to play like favorites, too.

Jim Souhan can be heard at 10-noon Sunday on AM-1500. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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Damian Johnson