The Timberwolves were in the fourth game of a five-game homestand on Dec. 16. The opponents were the Phoenix Suns, a rebuilding team playing without its one star, Devin Booker.
The Suns were overmatched and seemingly disinterested early. Then, in an astounding collapse, the Wolves lost 108-106, when Isaiah Canaan, playing his first Phoenix game, was fouled and made three free throws with six seconds left.
Phoenix had a 69-20 advantage in bench points, and nonstarter Alex Len had 19 rebounds. The Wolves were 17-13 after the game, a respectable record that couldn’t hide a number of terrible losses.
At that moment, Tom Thibodeau was as popular with Wolves fans as Brad Childress had been with Vikings fans. If only this stuck-in-his-ways veteran coach had the basketball acumen and connection with players of young Richard Pitino with the Gophers, then Minnesota hoopheads would enjoy an exciting winter on both major fronts.
Also: As Wolves owner Glen Taylor was left with two more years on his hefty contract with Thibodeau to run the operation, wasn’t it fortunate Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle had stepped up last May to add another year to Pitino’s deal, through the 2021-22 season?
It wasn’t only the turnaround from 8-23 in 2015-16 to an NCAA appearance last season that led to the extension. Coyle also cited Pitino having players write individual letters to university officials and boosters, apologizing for the manner in which the 2015-16 team had represented the university, on and off the court.
Accountability. That’s what Pitino demanded from players, and himself.
The current Gophers reached No. 12 in November, before losses to Miami (Fla.), Nebraska and Arkansas took them out of the rankings. Yet, on that Saturday in December, as a guy named Canaan was making three free throws at Target Center, we hoopheads knew this:
Pitino would have the Gophers in the NCAA tournament with a strong seed, and Thibodeau would be lucky to have the Wolves in the playoffs.
Which serves as another reminder that sports outlooks can change in four weeks, even when a coach makes players promise accountability in writing.
PATRICK'S PLUS THREE
More changeable outlooks:
• Gophers women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings was going to be fired. Now, freshman Destiny Pitts is putting her in NCAA tourney.
• Don Lucia will walk after this season. Bob Motzko or Mike Guentzel will be the next Gophers men’s hockey coach.
• Revised Big Ten West football coach ratings: Paul Chryst, Scott Frost, Jeff Brohm, Kirk Ferentz, Pat Fitzgerald, P.J. Fleck and Lovie Smith.