The Gophers women’s basketball team opened the doors to Williams Arena to fans Monday night to celebrate an invitation to the NCAA tournament after a half-decade absence.
A modest crowd of a couple hundred seemed to enjoy the occasion as the Gophers received a No. 8 seed, and why not? This market is starved for a winner.
A selection show viewing party, however, shouldn’t feel like a visit from a long-lost relative.
No reason exists that should preclude postseason basketball — the real one, not that second-rate NIT stuff — from becoming a regular destination for the Gophers women’s hoopsters. A program that made the Final Four in 2004 should experience March Madness more than every five years or so.
To her credit, first-year coach Marlene Stollings seems to treat the NCAA tournament as a lifeline, her daily purpose, and not something that just occurs every so often when the Gophers happen to have a good season.
“We’re very much set on operating at a very high level,” she said.
Stollings wants her program to think big, and act big, probably because she knows women’s basketball can and should be successful at Minnesota. The team plays in a power conference and has a supportive administration and fan base, both in terms of their financial backing and loyalty.
The Gophers travel to every road game by charter. Salaries for assistant coaches have risen significantly under Stollings, and the program owns an annual operating budget of slightly more than $3 million. The Gophers don’t suffer from a competitive disadvantage in resources.
“We feel like we’re only scratching the surface of how great we want to be ultimately in this program,” Stollings said. “We want to be nationally recognized. We want to be a team that’s vying for a No. 1 seed and things of that nature. This is a great first step for us.”
Stollings’ Lamborghini-fast style of play should be attractive to recruits, as should the fact that a premier WNBA team resides three miles from campus.
More than anything, a successful program requires talent, and Minnesota offers enough quality high school basketball players for Stollings to use as a foundation, if she can convince the best players to stay home.
This state generally produces around 10 Division I players each year, according to Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff, veteran architect of the powerhouse prep program. Not all of those recruits are Big Ten-caliber, of course, but many are, and a number of players are excelling at other schools now.
Nia Coffey was named first-team all-Big Ten for Northwestern. Rebekah Dahlman was Vanderbilt’s leading scorer this season. Seanna Johnson was Iowa State’s second-leading scorer.
Iowa State has two Minnesotans on its roster. Iowa has three. Hopkins guard T’Aire Starks, an all-metro selection this season, signed with Iowa State.
Few coaches get every top recruiting target, but the point is, Stollings doesn’t need to travel far to find talent as she builds her program. A tournament appearance in Year 1 is a strong selling point.
“For them to see it transpire and evolve gives us credibility quickly here in what we want to accomplish,” Stollings said.
A tournament run would help their cause even more, but Stollings’ debut season can be classified as a success either way. The Gophers made it to this point because they refused to let a deflating knee injury to star Rachel Banham ruin their season.
Even without Banham, Stollings maintained her tournament-or-bust mantra, which was refreshing because excuses in sports too often become a matter of convenience. Stollings also didn’t back off her tournament push when her team endured a midseason slump, which was encouraging as well because serious doubt had entered the discussion.
The program still needs to establish depth and find a defensive identity in the coming seasons, but if everything stays on course without major setbacks, the Gophers should feel positive about their future.
A returning nucleus of a healthy Banham, star center Amanda Zahui B. and quick-trigger shooter Carlie Wagner will be a load for teams to handle next season.
The NCAA tournament becomes a minimum expectation with that group.
“This is just the beginning,” Zahui said.
The Gophers deserve to celebrate and enjoy their moment, a good step for a program that underwent a makeover this time last year.
They are a tournament team again. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to stay that way.