Jim Dutcher’s Gophers basketball team was a No. 2 seed in the Mideast Regional of the 1982 NCAA tournament when they lost to No. 3-seeded Louisville 67-61 in the Sweet 16. It was Dutcher’s lone NCAA tournament trip with the Gophers, and he said he knows how tough it is to lose in a do-or-die game.

“The end of the season comes suddenly when you lose in the tournament,” Dutcher said Thursday following the Gophers’ 81-72 loss to Middle Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament. “I know there are a lot of heavy hearts [for] Gophers fans, but you have to look at the kind of year it was in total, and the future looks bright. There are some positives.”

It was amazing the Gophers were even in the game, cutting the Blue Raiders’ lead to 62-58 with 6 minutes, 44 seconds left after being down by as much as 16 points with less than 11 minutes to play.

The Gophers, who led the Big Ten in offensive rebounding during conference play, gave up 11 offensive boards to MTSU and grabbed only four themselves. They also shot 28.6 percent on three-pointers, while MTSU shot 53.8 percent.

Those two stats were lacking because senior guard and three-point specialist Akeem Springs was out because of a torn Achilles’ tendon and junior center Reggie Lynch played only 24 minutes because of foul trouble.

Lynch had two points, three blocks and one offensive rebound when he picked up two fouls within two seconds midway through the first half and had to leave the game with the Gophers trailing 17-14 with 8:09 remaining.

Then he picked up his third foul only 68 seconds into the second half with the Gophers trailing 39-33. He wouldn’t return until 14 minutes remained and the Gophers were down 55-40.

“You have to give some credit to Middle Tennessee State, they’re a good ballclub,” Dutcher said. “They really executed in the half-court, they got great shots the whole ballgame. That is their 31st win, that’s not by accident. They’re a good basketball team.

“Lynch getting in foul trouble really hurt us. He never really got into the flow of the game, and that hurt our inside defense. They got a lot of layups because Reggie wasn’t around to block those shots.”

Dutcher added that Nate Mason’s game didn’t look comfortable against the tough zone of MTSU. The all-Big Ten junior guard finished with five points on 2-for-10 shooting (including 1-for-7 on three-pointers) and had three assists and four turnovers.

“Nate … really did have a tough game,” Dutcher said. “They played the 2-3 and the 1-3-1 zone, and that kept him from driving to the basket. He just didn’t get those usual drive-in layups that he scores. He finally hit a couple outside shots, but he had a tough game.

“On the other hand, you look at the game [freshman guard] Amir Coffey had, 17 points, hit some key baskets. When we had our run — we were down 14 with just over 10 minutes to go — and Amir Coffey was the guy who led us back into that ballgame. I think we got down to three or four after that run. But their senior, Reggie Upshaw, scored nine straight points when it looked like we had a chance to really get back into the basketball game. He scored nine in a row and we just couldn’t overcome that.”

Missing leadership

Dutcher said any team that loses a key player is going to struggle, but it had to be especially tough for the Gophers, a team that rarely goes deep into the bench, to lose Springs after he was injured against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

“Any time you lose a great leader like Springs, particularly at this time of the year, it’s really tough to overcome that,” Dutcher said. “And it stings right now. No question. A lot of the Gophers fans, including myself, felt like this was a game they could win.”

Still, Dutcher said when you look at the total picture of the Gophers season, this loss isn’t what it’s all about.

“This was a great turnaround year,” he said. “We had some great, great moments in Williams Arena this year. And going into next season with the addition of the point guard out of New York City [four-star recruit Isaiah Washington], the Gophers will probably be picked to win the league next year, if they can keep these guys all eligible and continue to improve.

“It was a good year for Gophers basketball. [Thursday] was one of those games where a very good team executed in the half-court. We couldn’t stop them with our half-court defense. They got all kind of good looks at the basket. In the end, they scored over 80 points and they win.”

Jottings

• Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau talked about the play of Ricky Rubio over the past month, when he has looked like one of the best point guards in the NBA: “He started the season and got nicked up early. He missed five games, and in the first month it was a struggle, [but] each month, he has gotten better and better. I think right now he is playing as well as he has in a long time. I think he is doing everything, rebounding the ball, passing the ball great, making good decisions. He’s making good plays for us, and they’re winning plays.”

• Good news for former Gophers linebackers coach Mike Sherels and his wife, Emily, who recently had twins named Lyla James and Cecilia K. New Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck told me he offered jobs to Sherels and Dan O’Brien, who were on Tracy Claeys’ staff, and they turned them down.

• Former Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner talked about his experience at the NFL combine and said one of the best pieces of advice he has been given is to not put too much pressure on himself. “Luckily I don’t feel too much pressure, actually,” he said. “I’ve received a lot of good advice from different coaches and from [former Vikings quarterback] Rich Gannon as well, just go out there and sling it. I don’t have much to lose. I’m just trying to get that one team to fall in love with me and give me an opportunity. Whatever happens happens, and I’m taking it a day at a time right now.”

• Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman talked about the Gophers’ chances of having players drafted by the NFL, including defensive back Jalen Myrick, who ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash time at the combine: “They have a couple very good prospects that we’ll look at. I think they have five or six guys. But [Myrick] was very impressive with the 40 time he ran. We look at all of that, but the most important thing is going to be how you evaluate them and what they do on the football field. But there’s no question about [Myrick’s] speed and his athletic ability.”

 

Sid Hartman can be heard Mondays and Fridays on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: shartman@startribune.com