The Gophers men's basketball team will open the NCAA tournament facing one of the best teams in the country today in Texas, according to Texas Tech coach Pat Knight, whose team lost twice to the Longhorns this season.
And Texas Tech was good enough to beat Big 12 regular-season champion Kansas as well as NCAA tournament qualifier Texas A&M.
According to Knight, Texas (22-11) is playing at its best now because the Longhorns are healthy and they have discovered one of the top point guards in the country.
"We couldn't beat Texas, they're a hard matchup," said Knight, whose Red Raiders lost at home to Texas 71-49 on Jan. 17 before giving the Longhorns a better game in Austin, losing there 87-81 on Feb. 25. "Their talent is lot better that what their record shows ... because they've had some injuries. The kid [Gary] Johnson got hurt for two, three games, and he and [Damion] James are two very good athletes that can shoot it and drive it, and they usually play those two together. If he wants to go big, he plays that kid [Dexter] Pittman, and that becomes a tough matchup. Or they take Pittman out and go really athletic and push the ball up on you and drive you."
Knight said all the Longhorns players shoot well but that opponents have to be especially weary of senior guard A.J. Abrams, who is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, having hit 95 of 244 this season.
The Longhorns have had great point guards under coach Rick Barnes, including T.J. Ford, Daniel Gibson and D.J. Augustin, all now in the NBA. Knight said this year is no exception, with a Turkish player named Dogus Balbay emerging for Texas. Balbay became the starter last month.
"Early in the season, they were playing Abrams at point guard and then Balbay came along and they shifted Abrams to the 2 guard, and then Balbay really came on toward end of the Big 12 season," Knight said. "I think that Balbay kid gets better every game ... because he was used to playing international rules and that short shot clock, so he was kind of rushing himself and Rick didn't play him much. He would play him here and there at the start, but now he's become a real good point guard for him, and that frees up Abrams, and he is as good as shooting guard as you can find."
Knight doesn't like the Gophers' chances to beat this talented team.
"I think [Texas] has got a chance [to win the national title]. They have as much talent as anybody, they can make a heck of a run in the NCAA tournament if everybody is healthy," Knight said. "And if Minnesota can beat them, that would be a great win for them."U hockey rebounds
The Gophers men's hockey team was ranked No. 1 in the nation earlier this season. That seems like a long time ago, after it went through a stretch in which it won only once in eight games.
How does coach Don Lucia account for the slump?
"Well, I think, you're never as good as people think you are and never as bad; you're usually somewhere in the middle," Lucia said. "I think, the recipe when we won early in the season was good specialty team play, good goaltending and timely goals. That's what happened [when the Gophers swept St. Cloud State in the WCHA playoffs Friday and Saturday]. We're not a team that's going to beat people 5-4; we have to win like we did [last] weekend."
The Gophers gave up five or more goals seven times in February. But in winning their past three games, they have given up a total of only two goals in that stretch.
"Obviously [goalie] Alex Kangas is a key," Lucia said. "He was outstanding early in the season, and he went through his difficult times, like athletes do, but to his credit, like I told him heading into this weekend, his history has always been that he's outstanding in the playoffs and he was outstanding [last] weekend. ... That's where we have to have him."
The Gophers face Minnesota Duluth at Xcel Energy Center tonight in the first game of the WCHA Final Five.
"[The Bulldogs] will be an outstanding opponent and a great game, and we're looking forward to it," Lucia said. "With how competitive the league is and across the country right now, you're just happy to get through the first weekend [of playoffs] and get to keep playing."
Certainly, the Gophers are young, but they are talented and they hope they will still be playing when the NCAA tournament begins.
"We only have the two seniors, but we probably will be faced with that for years to come with the way things are now," Lucia said. "But you just have to do the best you can each and every year. Obviously, January and February weren't good months for us, and disappointing, but I'm proud the way the guys rebounded this weekend to beat a very good St. Cloud team."Jottings
Vikings coach Brad Childress has a lot of confidence in second-year center John Sullivan's ability to do a good job of replacing 11-year veteran Matt Birk, who left for Baltimore as a free agent. Childress is not only impressed by Sullivan's athletic ability but also by how smart a football player the former Notre Dame athlete is. The plan is also to give Ryan Cook, who has played right tackle in the pros, a chance to work some at center, his former college position, and see what he can do there during training camp. And there is no doubt that the Vikings will look at for offensive line help in next month's NFL draft. However, Childress said that there isn't any position the Vikings can't use a good football player.
Steve Hutchinson and Birk not only were offensive line teammates but very close friends, and it's been a surprise that Hutchinson, who has to be upset by Birk's departure, hasn't made any comments publicly. Hutchinson was in Hawaii, where the players voted in DeMaurice Smith to replace the late Gene Upshaw as head of the players union. "We've been swapping messages. He is one of my real good buddies," Birk said of Hutchinson. "I've got a lot of buddies on the team, and probably more so that, I've got a lot of friends in the organization. I'm going to miss being around him everyday, certainly I'll keep in touch with him. I'm not leaving him forever. That's the one thing -- over 11 years, I think the strength of any organization, whether it be football, or any kind of business, the strength always lies with the people. The Vikings have a lot of great people that work there. I've got people that will be my friends for life. One of our longtime equipment managers, Sammy Casalenda, he's the godfather to my son. That's how deep some of the friendships run that I made over there."