Could Flip Saunders be the Gophers new basketball coach to replace Tubby Smith?

Both WCCO’s Chad Hartman and KFAN’s Dan Barreiro are reporting that could be the case, saying the ex-Wolves coach and former Gophers player has emerged as Minnesota's leading candidate.

WCCO first tweeted the report that Saunders had emerged as the leading candidate for the job around noon, below:

 Barreiro soon tweeted something similar:

Saunders deflected questions about his candidacy during a brief radio appearance with Barreiro on Friday afternoon.

Saunders has established plenty of fan support as Minnesota has embarked on its coaching search, and there are reportedly donors – who could hold the strings to a practice facility – who would like to see him be the hire as well.

Based on what I’ve been told, however, Saunders does not fit the bill entirely. Athletic director Norwood Teague and right-hand man Mike Ellis went into the search wanting their own “guy” in the job, ideally one who is deeply entrenched in the college game now – an up-and-comer versus a former coach, even one that was successful. They want someone that can grow with the program and relate to the athletes.

Most importantly, Teague and Ellis have perhaps the biggest network of any administration in college basketball because of Villa 7. They have proven to be solid judges of talent and have the respect of a wide cache of coaches and assistants nation-wide.

At some point, however, it would be understandable if the administration decided to hire the local favorite rather than one of their own guys.

But four days in, and with the only other candidates linked to talks being three that I thought were probably unrealistic (Shaka Smart, Fred Hoiberg and Brad Stevens) from the start – I don’t think that time is now.

However, this story is still developing, and I will update with any relevant news.

Saunders has also been linked to the Timberwolves general manager job. Our Kent Youngblood did a story on Saunders about a month ago, in which he talked about both another NBA role, or a college coaching role – and how he could be valuable.

Here’s an excerpt of that story:

"I expect him back," said Randy Wittman, an assistant under Saunders at multiple stops who took over for Flip when he was fired with the Wizards. "He's antsy. Flip is a coach. He is a coach who misses coaching, I think. In talking with him, I can tell it's burning in his belly." ...

And what about college? Again, Saunders won't commit other than to reiterate the line he's given for years, that he always envisioned himself returning to the college ranks one day. There is the persistent rumor that he'd like to coach the Gophers, a team he still loves and follows, but Saunders won't touch that one.

At least not specifically. But he does cite names such as Rick Pitino and John Calipari as proof that moving back to college from the NBA can work.

"You've coached basketball 24-7," he said. "Offense, defense, game situations, game preparations? You've been through it so much you're more prepared."

Asked if recruiting would be a problem, Saunders laughed, citing his success recruiting when part of Jim Dutcher's staff at Minnesota.

"I'll say this. Recruiting is basically selling yourself, your organization," Saunders said. "When you go into a home, talk to these guys, most of the players are coming out of AAU situations. They all think they'll play in the NBA. ...I can say I know what it takes to be in the NBA. I scoff at the idea that I wouldn't want to go to college because I couldn't recruit."

Read the full story here.

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Rayno: Stevens out, Saunders reported as lead candidate for Gophers basketball job