Reusse: Even with Knight at courtside, bedlam at Barn is mostly benign

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 1, 2011 - 12:02 PM

Those who recall edgy Big Ten basketball at Williams Arena know the U has work to do.

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Injured Gophers player Trevor Mbakwe, center cheered on his teammates from the sideline as head coach Tubby Smith, left, looked on.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Bobby Knight was in Williams Arena on Wednesday night to provide ESPN's analysis for the Gophers-Virginia Tech game. This was five weeks shy of the 40th anniversary of when Knight first brought an Indiana team to Minnesota.

It was the conference opener Jan. 8, 1972. A crowd of more than 18,000 was there to see Knight and Bill Musselman, a rival from his high school days in Ohio, go at it for the first time in the Big Ten.

The game was such a defensive struggle that every basket was an excruciating experience for the two teams. Finally, the Gophers' Jim Brewer blocked a shot near the buzzer, and the home team had a 52-51 victory that turned The Barn into bedlam.

Knight missed the coaches' handshake -- as he was occupied pursuing the officials off the elevated floor for failing to call what surely would have been a foul on Brewer if the game were played in Bloomington, Ind.

"I was here that night," Warren Bolin of Maple Grove said.

"That was a wild ballgame."

There were many of those over the next quarter-century. More often than not, Williams Arena was the place to be once the Big Ten schedule started in January -- right up until the morning the story broke in March 1999 that the Gophers basketball program had engaged in academic fraud.

The fire never has been regained inside The Barn for more than a few games at a time.

Wednesday's game in the Big Ten/ACC challenge was the fifth on the home schedule and the first that a discerning ticketholder might consider attending. There is another Saturday against Southern Cal, but four more "who cares?" nonconference games remain before Big Ten play starts Dec. 27 at Illinois.

The game with a mediocre ACC team did produce the most bodies inside Williams this season, with 9,000 as a reasonable estimate of the actual crowd.

This was the first game for the Gophers without Trevor Mbakwe, who was going to be a first-team All-Big Tenner and give Tubby Smith's club a chance to return to the NCAA tournament.

Mbakwe now has season-ending knee surgery in his future. And to create more size problems, Ralph Sampson III missed this game because of a sore ankle.

That left the raw redshirt freshman, Elliott Eliason, to start at center, along with Rodney Williams at forward, and Julian Welch and the Hollins lads, Andre and Austin, as a three-guard combo.

Virginia Tech did its best to fill the star-less Gophers with confidence at the start. The Hokies threw rocks off the rim from all angles and needed 4 minutes, 15 seconds to get on the scoreboard.

It was 10-2 for the Gophers at the first TV timeout, and then Tubby's athletes joined Virginia Tech in an ugly fest. Tech led 28-25 at the half, while shooting 38.5 percent to 39.3 for the Gophers.

"Well, that set basketball back 50 years," someone sitting near Bolin said.

Unfortunately, it didn't set it back 40 years, when Indiana and Minnesota couldn't score on a Big Ten opening night because every shot was being contested as if it was part of a goal-line stand.

The crowd was bored to yawns for much of the first half. Knight must have had to keep checking that there was an elevated floor, just to make sure this was the same place where his Hoosiers faced a full-throated din from a full house of fanatics on so many nights.

There was an attempt at renewed enthusiasm when Smith came in from Kentucky for the 2007-08 season. There was an increase to 9,343 season tickets sold to the public. A year later, the student sale reached 2,105.

Now, in his fifth season, the Gophers have sold 8,382 tickets to the public and 1,205 to students.

There was some enthusiasm down the stretch Wednesday, as the Gophers came away with a 58-55 victory on Welch's four free throws in the final 18 seconds.

There was a loud cheer when Erick Green's three went around the rim at the buzzer.

Sorry, Coach Knight, but that's the best we can do these days: a loud cheer. The real roars have gone missing in The Barn.

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

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