We already knew there was going to be a Minnesota connection in the NCAA tournament regardless of the winner of last night's Summit League men's basketball tournament final. In the end, South Dakota State -- with a bevy of Minnesota natives on the roster -- outlasted Western Illinois, which is coached by former Gophers assistant (and former interim head coach) Jim Molinari. It's a great accomplishment for SDSU, helping complete the transition to Division I the school embarked upon in the mid-2000s. But for the sake of symmetry and intrigue, a win by Molinari's squad could have made for a pretty interesting storyline at the Big Dance.
Molinari, of course, took over for fired Gophers coach Dan Monson in the middle of the 2006-07 season. Monson is now the head coach at Long Beach State, which has a better-than-decent shot at making the field of 68. The 49ers start the Big West tourney on Thursday. Three wins in three days (albeit likely without one of their top players) will guarantee them a spot in the NCAA tourney after a 22-8 regular season (20-8 against D-I foes) that included a 15-1 mark in conference play. Even without a conference tourney title, Long Beach State might garner a bid. With an RPI of 35, the squad would be a bubble team. Though it lacks a great signature win -- Xavier and Pitt are the best on its ledger -- Long Beach State lost by six to North Carolina and eight to Kansas, both on the road, as part of a non-conference schedule ranked the toughest in all of Division I. Creighton, Louisville, Kansas State and San Diego State (all top-40 RPI teams) were also on that slate.
If Monson and Molinari could have made the tournament, it would have been an interesting March for Gophers fans. As it is, the sight of Monson in the tourney -- while Minnesota, barring a Big Ten tournament title, is not -- would be another kick in the shins all the same.