I’m not sure how many Minnesotans consider themselves to be hardcore fans of both major basketball entities in the Twin Cities, the Timberwolves and the Gophers men’s team. The unknown hundreds in that category have experienced what could be the most-embarrassing winter in memory for that combination of teams.
We’re not talking about the raw numbers of wins and losses for these two teams, but the methods in which this twin disaster has come about. Here’s the reasoning:
*Rich Pitino was attending his weekly, hour-long radio show in the club room at Williams Arena on Dec. 29, two days before the Gophers would open the Big Ten schedule at Purdue.
The Gophers were 11-2 in non-conference games (including Division II Franklin Pierce) and on an eight-game winning streak. They had played Louisville, St. John’s and Georgia on neutral courts, with a win over Georgia. They also had won at Wake Forest, a team that would finish 12th among 15 teams in the ACC.
Pitino talked that day of statistical ratings that had the Gophers in lofty position when it came to offensive efficiency and steals. He also was enthused about the high number of deflections that the Gophers were compiling on defense, clearly an indication that his philosophy of pressure and high-tempo play was working.
There was only a small concession that these gaudy statistics had been posted against a run of less-than-distinguished opponents. It also was mentioned that the absence of Daquien McNeil had hurt the team’s depth, without noting the fact this was due to being charged with felony assault of a woman.
Neither the coach nor his small audience of boosters seemed humbled by the fact McNeil was in such a legal mess, and that two other players, freshman Josh Martin and Zach Lofton (sitting out a transfer season), were also gone already from the team.
“These things happen with new programs,’’ was the phrase I kept hearing from the apologists.
They do? They don’t have to.
This was Pitino’s deal, and I was there as an eavesdropper, so it was not the place to bellow:
“Hey, coach, these stats you are citing to laud your team’s play have been put together against nobodies, and the lack of depth … that’s because of the type of players you brought in, nobody else’s fault.’’
Western Carolina. North Dakota. Southern. Seattle. Furman. UNC Wilmington. All in Williams Arena.
Those were the six challenges the Gophers faced in the four weeks before meeting Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. on Dec. 31. Those were the games when the offensive efficiency was boosted, and the steals and the deflections piled up … six more wins and slick stats that meant nothing.
As soon became evident with the 0-5 start to the Big Ten schedule.
I can guarantee that there was no one in the Williams Arena club room on that Monday – not one of us – who would have thought it was possible for the efficient, ball-stealing, 11-2 Gophers to become the stumbling, choke-in-the-clutch, 18-15 Gophers that would not be among an even 100 teams selected to participate in either the NCAA tournament, or the consolation NIT.
Rich Pitino’s second season as Gophers coach was an unequivocal disaster.
*There is nothing worse an entertainment entity can do to the public than sell them something that’s a charade. And that is what the Timberwolves have done with the return of Kevin Garnett.
The first hint that this was an elaborate sleight of hand perpetuated on ticket buyers should have been what occurred immediately after the Wolves traded Thad Young to the Brooklyn Nets for Garnett on Feb. 19.
Young headed for Los Angeles and played the next night for the Nets. The Wolves had Garnett skip the first two post-trade games, had a KG-is-back press conference on Feb. 23, and broke him out to a standing room crowd at Target Center on Feb. 24.
Starting then, the Wolves have played 10 games – five at home in which Garnett has played, five on the road in which Garnett has not played.
Tonight, the Nets are in town, but you’re not going to sell tickets for a bottom-feeding team on a Monday night in March against a ho-hum opponent even with Garnett in the lineup, so he doesn’t figure to play.
The Wolves have started to blame Garnett’s absence on a balky knee. That’s probably better than the knee slapper from a week or more back, when the suggestion was KG actually could provide more long-term assistance to his young teammates by being involved in practice than in playing road games.
That rates among the top handful of excuses for asinine behavior over the past decade of what has been an asinine excuse for an NBA team.
They duped us, folks. The plan all along was to tank for Ping Pong balls in the closing weeks of the schedule, and they brought in KG to sell tickets in March and April, and encourage season-ticket renewals.
This was a used car lot in the 1970s spinning back an odometer to make a sale. Nothing more noble than that.