Jim Dutcher coached the most talented team in Gophers basketball history in the winter of 1976-77. Mychal Thompson and Kevin McHale played inside, Osborne Lockhart and Flip Saunders played outside, and Ray Williams did whatever came into his mind.
Those Gophers went 24-3 overall and 15-3 in the Big Ten round-robin, losing twice to champion Michigan and at Purdue. The road victories included 66-59 over Marquette (the eventual national champion) and a 79-60 rout of Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers.
There was a wide-ranging basketball conversation with Dutcher earlier this week in which I expressed surprise that Bruce Weber -- after being fired at Illinois -- had landed as the Kansas State coach.
Weber took the Illini to the 2005 national title game at the end of his first season, then oversaw a program that slowly declined before he was fired last March.
"Bruce was in the same situation as me at Minnesota when he replaced Bill Self at Illinois,'' Dutcher said. "He walked into a mother lode of talent.''
The difference for Dutcher when he came to Minnesota in 1975 was that he also was walking into an aggressive NCAA investigation into Bill Musselman's four-year tenure at Minnesota.
So in that winter of 1977, the Gophers were playing under a postseason ban, and Thompson, Williams and friends never had a chance to take a crack at a national championship, which went to Marquette and Al McGuire.
Five seasons later, Dutcher coached the 1982 Big Ten champs -- the last Gophers' team to win a title that does not come with an asterisk (*vacated) attached to it. Dutcher resigned 20 games into the 1985-86 season, after three players were charged with rape (and later acquitted) in Madison, Wis., and the university decided to forfeit the ensuing game at Northwestern.
He undertook a successful second career in the investment business before retiring in 2005. Whether working that job, or joining Dick Bremer for telecasts of Gophers basketball on Midwest Sports Channel, or today watching any game that's on television, Dutcher has remained an ardent follower of Big Ten hoops.
What does "Dutch'' see from this Gophers bunch that is off to a 3-0 start in the Big Ten and has been moving ever upward in the national rankings?
"One of the biggest things I see is the players are playing without looking at Tubby [Smith],'' Dutcher said. "For a couple of years you would see a guy throw the ball away, and he would look over to the bench to see if a sub was coming in.
"This now looks like a team where the players and the coach trust each other. They are playing, and if there's a turnover or two, Tubby's going with it. He's a coach with confidence in his team, and for good reason.''
Dutcher talked about Trevor Mbakwe's strength and rebounding. He talked about the abilities of Rodney Williams and Joe Coleman to slash to the basket. And then he said:
"The guys I really like are Andre and Austin Hollins. You win in college basketball with guards. That's been the case forever.
"We won the Big Ten title in '82 with Trent Tucker and Darryl Mitchell -- and if Mark Hall hadn't gotten into trouble, we could've been a Final Four team."
Hall was tossed off the team for unauthorized use of university telephones.
Dutcher added: "We were great up front with Mychal and Kevin in 1977, but we had great guards in Ray, and Flip, and Goose [Lockhart]. You need guards -- and Tubby has them, with the Hollinses, and with Julian Welch off the bench.''
Dutcher was heading to San Diego late this week to spend a month with his son Brian's family. Brian is Steve Fisher's long-time No. 1 assistant, at Michigan and now at San Diego State.
"Aztecs basketball has become a hot ticket in San Diego,'' Dutcher said. "They have an on-campus arena that holds 13,000; they get great crowds, and big media coverage.''
Dutcher will be watching the Aztecs in person, but he'll also be figuring out a way to watch the Gophers -- particularly next Thursday's game with Michigan at Williams Arena.
"Michigan's Trey Burke is a tremendous guard,'' Dutcher said. "He's one of the best we've seen in the Big Ten in a while. I like Andre Hollins a lot, too. That will be a battle worth watching.''
Even from the sun and surf of San Diego.
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. firstname.lastname@example.org
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