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Gophers reflect on Final Four appearance 20 years ago Wednesday

Exactly 20 years ago Wednesday is when the Gophers men’s basketball team lost 78-69 to Kentucky in the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Several players who were on the 1996-97 squad talked recently to the Star Tribune about what making the Final Four meant to them, despite the fact that it later was vacated after an academic fraud scandal.

John Thomas was a senior center from Minneapolis and got drafted in the first round (No. 25 overall) by the New York Knicks in 1997. Thomas, now a national training manager for Ultimate Hoops, was trying to get his team back together in Minnesota to celebrate the anniversary together.

“We weren’t just a basketball team,” Thomas said. “We were part of a lot of people’s memories. That’s where I think the level of impact for us is really felt. Twenty years from then people are still talking about it. What made that part so special to me were the people and the relationships we had with our fans and the relationship we had to the community. That’s what made it so special.” 

Bobby Jackson, the Big Ten player of the year and leading scorer, was a first round pick (No. 23 overall) by the Seattle Supersonics in 1997. Jackson can’t believe how fast 20 years have gone by.

“We felt really like a brotherhood; it was such an amazing thing,” Jackson, now a Sacramento Kings radio analyst, said. “When you have such an amazing coach in Clem Haskins, it just made it special. Why did it have such an impact on people? Because out of all the Minnesota Gophers teams we were the one that went the furthest in the (NCAA) tournament. We accomplished a lot. We did a lot in the community. Coach was at the pinnacle of his career. He was a very successful coach. Regardless of it not being on record, I think the fans and the players we still recognize it.”

Jackson about his teammates: “Everybody was special. Everybody was different. Everybody had a different personality about them. Everybody came from a different part of the country. John, Sam (Jacobson) and Trevor (Winter) were from Minnesota. Courtney (James) was from Indiana. Quincy (Lewis) from Little Rock, Ark. Eric Harris was from New York. I was from North Carolina. Charles Thomas was from Kentucky. You look at our starting five there was such a bond. Everybody had their special moment with the team and everybody contributed. We did a great job of understanding how to play together but be successful.”

Trevor Winter was a senior backup center on the Gophers who is celebrating his 20-year wedding anniversary. The 7-footer from Slayton, Minn. got married the summer after the Final Four season.

“The last fight I had in practice I know was with (teammate) Miles Tarver,” Winter said. “I was going for a rebound. He’s two years behind me and battling for playing time. He was going for a rebound and I didn’t like the way he pushed me. And we started going at each other and got held back. It was pretty intense. But we went to the Final Four and I got married in June. Miles was in my wedding party. It’s just something we did (fighting in practice). Players were so close. It’s just something you do like it was your brother.”

Winter on the magical NCAA tournament run: “Even with a great team, it was really, really hard. You’ve got to have great players. You have to be playing very well. You have to have chemistry. You have to have great coaching. You have to have all of that stuff. You can’t just throw it together one year, and all of a sudden you’re good. There are a lot of moving parts there. The joke is always, ‘Did it happen or not?’ It’s never a question. You talk to any of these guys and they say the same thing. It’s as real today as it was 20 years ago. Of course it happened and we’ll never forget the year that we had.”

Quincy Lewis was a standout sophomore forward on the Gophers in 1997. Lewis, who now works in the Gophers student-athlete development office, said the Final Four anniversary kind of “snuck up” on him.

“I think people need to enjoy it,” Lewis said. “It was one of the biggest things we did. It was a great time. It’s something we all should realize that it was a special moment. It was hard to do it. Guys on the team we were in the game. We got to experience it. Not being able to come back and celebrate isn’t great. But a lot of times that’s for the fans. I still talk about (the Final Four) with my (teammates) a little bit. For me, I just wish people would have some compassion and really just celebrate it. Everyone got a chance to see it. Everyone got a chance to be a part of it. We should all celebrate it (on our own) and have fun.”  

Aaron Stauber was a senior walk-on guard who transferred in to play one season with the Gophers. He works as a chiropractor in Ontario, but he would bring his family back if the team got together for a reunion this year.

“I basically gave up a scholarship to play in the Big Ten,” Stauber said. “In the big picture, we created some pretty awesome memories; a lot of excitement and good vibes for a ton of people. You know how much gear I have and memories I have that I show my kids. They’re all geeked up about it.  Jerseys, shorts, pictures and rings. But I also tell them the reality of what happened to that season (vacated) and why there are issues with college sports. I try to be realistic about what’s going on and look at the bigger picture.”

Kevin Loge was a freshman center redshirting that season in 1996-97. But the 6-foot-10 Morris, Minn. native said just being around the Gophers at the Final Four was an unforgettable experience.

“We had a pretty well put together team that year,” Loge said. “We wanted to bring it all home if we could. You knew what was going on. But it didn’t sink in until after the fact. Now that I look back, it’s been 20 years later. It was a great experience. Not many people get to be a part of that. It’s something I’ll always remember. I can remember going to the Elite Eight and the Final Four and the fan base and support we had people coming with family, friends and fans was unbelievable.”

Haskins: 'Gophers can win a national championship with local talent'

Clem Haskins still has a pulse on the talent of high school basketball in Minnesota.

It’s been 20 years since he made the Final Four with the Gophers and nearly as long since he resigned as head coach after the academic scandal, but he still follows his old program. 

 

When Richard Pitino replaced Tubby Smith at Minnesota in 2013, Haskins called the then-30-year-old basketball coach to give him some recruiting advice because he liked him.  

“I told Richard when he got the job at Minnesota,” Haskins said last week. “I said, ‘Richard, one thing you must commit to do is go get Richard Coffey’s son. Whatever you do, you’ve got to get him to come to Minnesota when he graduates.’”

Haskins, of course, was talking about Amir Coffey, who was a standout freshman for the Gophers this season. The 6-foot-8 former Hopkins guard ranked second on the team in scoring, assists and minutes played while earning All-Big Ten freshman honors.

Richard Coffey played for Haskins from 1986-1990, which included a Sweet 16 in 1989 and Elite Eight in 1990. Amir Coffey was in the ninth grade when Pitino was hired four years ago.

“But (friends in Minnesota) were telling me about him,” Haskins said, “that he was going to be a player.”

If the Gophers are going to make it back to the Final Four and compete for a national championship again one day, Haskins said it will be after keeping the best players from the state from leaving home.

“The state of Minnesota is producing the best players in America,” Haskins said. “You talk about California. No, no, no. Right there in the Twin Cities and surrounding (areas), they’re just as good as any players in the country. (Pitino) got Coffey. So hopefully now he can start getting the best players out of Minnesota. Because they can got out there and win a national championship with just local talent. They have that kind of talent now.”

Haskins said when he was coaching the Gophers from 1987-1999, the state of Minnesota had almost zero high-major Division I talent. Haskins mostly relied on recruiting out-of-state prospects to fill his roster. But he did land a few impact local players like Kevin Lynch, Sam Jacobson, John Thomas and Joel Przybilla over 13 years.

Pitino, who reached his first NCAA tournament this season, now has a chance to build a contender by closing the border, according to Haskins.

In 2014, the state had three McDonald’s All-Americans with Tyus Jones (Duke), Reid Travis (Stanford) and Rashad Vaughn (UNLV). Travis was an All-Pac 12 first team forward this season. Jones and Vaughn, both guards, are second-year NBA players.

A couple years later, Coffey and Michael Hurt helped Pitino get his first pair of high school players from Minnesota. The state’s 2017 class didn't continue the trend. Theo John (Marquette), Nathan Reuvers (Wisconsin) and Jericho Sims (Texas) could be impact post players at the next level. Guards McKinley Wright (Dayton) and Brad Davison (Wisconsin) were both Mr. Basketball finalists, with Wright winning the award.

Anyone who watched the state tournament last week surely came away impressed with 2018 and 2020 point guards Tre Jones and Jalen Suggs, who led Apple Valley and Minnehaha Academy to state titles, respectively. The best big men in the tourney was arguably future Gopher Daniel Oturu. And you can’t forget about skilled forward Race Thompson (2018) and Matthew Hurt (2019), whose teams didn’t make it to state to play at the Target Center.

You can see why Haskins believes there's more than enough in-state talent now to build another Final Four caliber team with the Gophers. 

“(The state) had big guys who you had to wait on and develop,” he said. “I’m talking about a skilled player. They didn’t have one. But now they’re blessed with (more) excellent players.”

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