Patrick Reusse: U basketball ought to be aiming for the top this season

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2012 - 8:04 AM

With a talented and deep roster, the Gophers should have their sights set on winning their first Big Ten title since 1997.

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Senior forward Rodney Williams is a potential All-Big Ten first-team selection, but he is one of many skilled players on the Gophers roster this season.

Photo: Kiichiro Sato, Associated Press

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No matter what do-gooders attempt to tell you, the Minnesota Gophers were decisive winners of the Big Ten men's basketball title in 1997. Clem Haskins' lads went 16-2 to finish four victories clear of the competition.

One year later, the Big Ten joined the circus of conference tournaments. I'm not sure if that's the reason we no longer talk about winning regular-season titles around here, or if it's the fact the Gophers have not been a factor in the 15 seasons since that wonderful ride through the Big Ten and to the Final Four.

Clem was 14-18 and finished eighth and sixth in his final two seasons, before being invited by the administration to return to his farm in Campbellsville, Ky.

Dan Monson was on the sideline for seven Big Ten seasons. Vincent Grier led the Gophers to a 10-6 conference record and a tie for fourth in 2005.

The rest of the Monson stay here did not go well. He was 44-68 overall in conference play, and was fired after seven November games in 2006. Jim Molinari was stuck with guiding that overmatched bunch to a 3-13 conference record for 2007.

Tubby Smith has been through five Big Ten seasons, with a record of 38-52. His teams have finished sixth, tied for seventh, sixth, ninth and tied for ninth.

So, yeah, when you have gone through 15 winters with a tie for fourth as the zenith, it's probably not the conference tournament but the condition of the program that has caused the lack of conversation about the race for the Big Ten titles.

Whatever the sad history, first for the end of Clem, then for Monson and Molinari, and now for Tubby, it's time for the Williams Arena loyalists to change the target:

No more pushing the idea that finishing fourth and getting a reasonable seed would make the 2013 Big Ten regular season a success. It's time for Tubby to pull a "Benny Anders'' with his team.

Huh? I'll explain.

What: 1983 Final Four. Where: The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. When: National semifinal, Houston vs. Louisville. How: Houston pulls away for a 94-81 victory, thanks to a dunk-a-thon started by sixth man Anders.

The winners' news conference was being held, with coach Guy V. Lewis sitting next to Anders.

Q: Guy, what did you tell Anders when you put him in the game?

Lewis: "I told him to go in and dunk the dang thing.''

Q: What was your reaction to that, Benny?

Anders: "I went in and dunked the dang thing.''

The "dang thing'' in the case for Tubby and his players would be a Big Ten regular-season title, rather than a momentum-turning dunk, but the coach's message should be similar in the run-up to Monday's conference opener vs. Michigan State.

Tubby: "Go out and win the dang thing.''

Team leaders: "We're going to go out and win the dang thing.''

There's no reason to talk top four. The nucleus is here for a Big Ten title. The only teams that might hold an edge with their rosters are Michigan and Indiana. The Gophers can trump that with resolve and by defending the Barn's raised floor to the max.

This is a team of experience: 83 career starts for Rodney Williams, 55 for Austin Hollins, 34 for Andre Hollins and 33 for Joe Coleman. Trevor Mbakwe's official number of starts is 35 as a sixth-year senior, but he also will turn 24 next month.

This is a team of depth: Elliott Eliason, Mo Walker and Andre Ingram will provide relief up front, and Julian Welch and Maverick Ahanmisi are game-tested guards.

Mbakwe is a magnificent rebounder. Williams is a favorite to be first-team All-Big Ten. Austin Hollins is a defensive stopper. Coleman is a tough matchup with his get-to-the-basket mentality.

And then there's Andre Hollins: His ballhandling is average for a point guard, but he can defend, and he can explode offensively. His shooting has been inconsistent during these nonconference yawners. Once Monday arrives, the yawning stops and the sophomore is a good bet to have a couple of four- or five-game runs where he's one of the best guards in the Big Ten.

Talented at the top and 10 deep.

Why can't that be enough to win the dang thing?

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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