Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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Gophers have been quite an NIT powerhouse

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: March 26, 2014 - 8:47 AM

I was checking the Gophers’ history in the National Invitational Tournament and realized a loss of neurons had caused me to forget the noble ride of Dan Monson’s 2003 collection to the semifinals in Madison Square Garden.

Those Gophers won at St. Louis, defeated Hawaii in Williams Arena, and then beat a John Chaney-coached Temple team in Philadelphia (in overtime) to advance to New York. There, the Gophers lost to Georgetown in the semifinals, and then a third-place game to Bobby Knight and Texas Tech.

So, this will not be the Gophers’ fifth trip to the NIT semifinals in New York as I had recalled, but actually the sixth: 2012 with Tubby, 1993 and 1998 with Clem, 1980 with Dutch, and Monson in 2003.

Also: This is not the sixth ever trip for Minnesota to Madison Square Garden for the NIT. It is the seventh.

The first time the Gophers went was in 1973, when it was a 16-team tournament and all games were played in the Garden.

You want more perspective on the college basketball landscape four decades ago?

Only conference champions and independents receiving at-large bids made it to the NCAA tournament. There were 25 teams in the NCAA field and another 16 in the NIT -- meaning 41 University Division (now Division I) schools were in postseason play and that was it.

Today, there are 68 in the NCAA, 32 in the NIT, plus 48 more in these things called the CIT and the CBI.

The ’73 Gophers were blessed with tremendous talent and had a second consecutive Big Ten title in the palms of their large hands with two conference games remaining. Then, they blew a home game to Iowa, 79-77, and choked at woebegone Northwestern, 79-74, gave the title to Bobby Knight and Indiana, and wound up as unhappy participants in the NIT.

The Gophers went to New York rated No. 10 in the country and as NIT favorites. They defeated Rutgers, then allowed Alabama to go on a 16-0 run in the second half and lost in the quarterfinals.

The Gophers made their second trip to the NIT in 1980. By then, multiple teams from the major conferences were getting at-large bids to the NCAA, the field had increased to 48 teams. The NIT also had expanded to 32 teams, with the first three rounds played at campus sites.

The sponsoring body – the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association of New York – was awarding home games based on potential attendance. The Gophers played three games in Williams Arena, defeating Bowling Green, Ole Miss and Southwestern Louisiana (now La.-Lafayette).

In New York, the Gophers beat Illinois 65-63, before losing to Virginia 58-55 in the finals. The battle that night was between Virginia’s 7-foot-4 sophomore, Ralph Sampson Jr., and Minnesota’s 7-foot-3 freshman, Randy Breuer.

The NITs have come regularly for the Gophers since then: 1981 (2-1), 1983 (0-1), 1992 (0-1), 1993 (5-0), 1996 (1-1), 1998 (5-0), 2001 (0-1), 2002 (1-1), 2003 (3-1 in championship bracket), 2006 (1-1), 2008 (0-1), 2012 (4-1) and now 2014 (3-0 and counting.)

Let’s see, throw in 5-2 from 1973 and 1980, and the Gophers are 30-12 in the NIT. I don’t know about you, but my maroon blood is pumping and my corpuscles are jumping.

It is interesting to look back at Clem’s first NIT title in 1993 (which remains officially on the books, unlike 1998). The three opponents in the early rounds were Florida, Oklahoma and Southern Cal … and from major conferences. Throw in the indignation the fans felt over the Gophers not being an NCAA bid, and there was actual NIT fever.

The remodeling of Williams Arena started immediately at the end of the regular season and those three games were played in front of full houses at Target Center (twice) and Met Center. The Gophers then went to New York and defeated Providence and Georgetown (62-61 in an intriguing final).

Clem was getting a bit of heat over his road record back then, particularly from the Star Tribune’s beat reporter at the time, Dennis Brackin. In reviewing the season, Clem declared to Brackin that the Gophers had won five “road’’ games to capture the ’93 NIT.

“Road games?’’ Brackin said. “You were playing in front of hometown sellouts in Minneapolis and Bloomington, then on a neutral court … Madison Square Garden. Road games?’’

Clem shook his head in dismay over Brackin’s stubbornness and tried to explain with simplicity: “Dennis, were those games played in Williams Arena, on our court?’’

“No, but … ‘’ Brackin said.

Clem declared victory with a nod and said: “No buts, Dennis. Those were road games.’’

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