There was a time when Big Ten basketball started the heart pumping more than any game the Twin Cities sports scene had to offer. That excitement has been destroyed by a schedule that starts with six weeks of nobody opponents being bribed to lose in Williams Arena and by the decline in the conference's quality of play.

The Big Ten started its tournament in 1998, and it seemed like a must-see event for a couple of years. Then it became obvious this was nothing more than a second chance for teams that didn't really deserve one.

The current Gophers are such a team -- players that slew-footed their way through losses to inferior teams, and choked away games that were firmly in their grip.

All season, this team was less than its pieces. The first indication came four months ago in Anaheim, Calif., when indifference allowed this bunch to lose to Portland, a team a mere 15-20 points inferior on the talent scale.

The Gophers had a similar abomination against Indiana, recently abysmal when it comes to personnel. There also were the giveaway to Northwestern and the no-shows against Michigan.

This was a team with two giant sophomores, Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson. No team in the Big Ten had such a sizable pair, and yet their impact was minimal. There were two possibilities: They were stagnant in their development, or they were being used improperly by coach Tubby Smith and his staff.

The Gophers also possessed an excellent forward in Damian Johnson, one of the nation's best shooters in Blake Hoffarber and a guard with huge experience in Lawrence Westbrook.

The loss of point guard Al Nolen because of academic issues wound up improving the starting lineup. Sophomore Devoe Joseph started playing alongside Hoffarber, giving opponents a pair of long-range shooters to monitor.

The Gophers offered a final embarrassment in the last week of the regular season, losing 83-55 at Michigan. This was followed by last Sunday's blowout of an Iowa team similar to Indiana when it came to underwhelming athletes.

That sent the Gophers to Indianapolis as a .500 team in a mediocre conference. They opened by taking apart Penn State, the team that managed to finish behind both Indiana and Iowa.

The reaction from Tubby's camp was absurd. The Gophers looked at a victory over the 11th-place Nittany Lions as retribution for being shut out on the all-conference teams. The main complaint was that Johnson had not been named to the all-defensive team.

Guess what, lads? If you had brought a best effort as often as Johnson, this team would've been 12-6, maybe 13-5, in the league and he would've been a unanimous choice.

On Friday night, the Big Ten Network's broadcasters told us the Gophers "feel as if they didn't get any respect." There was a reason: They didn't deserve any respect -- not the head coach, not the players as a unit -- for being satisfied with such a humdrum regular season.

It took the arrival in Indianapolis for Smith and his players to finally decide to use their assets (including their size), and now Minnesota has reached the title game for the first in the 13 years of the tournament.

The Gophers followed form in the quarterfinals, blowing a sizable lead and allowing Michigan State to take them to overtime. Then, the Gophers played brilliant free-throw defense against the rim-clanging Spartans, and Joseph tossed in a couple of crucial rainbows, and Minnesota advanced.

This game was so important to Sparty that coach Tom Izzo suspended guard Chris Allen for not being a good teammate. The guess here is Izzo would've been less stringent with his best shooter if the coach needed a victory to reach the NCAA tournament.

That matched the Gophers on Saturday with Purdue, a team that without injured Robbie Hummel has as much grace on offense as a handful of mixed martial artists. The Boilermakers' score stayed on '4' for 11 minutes, 25 seconds, and they wound up being humiliated 69-42.

It was a tremendous effort by Tubby's Gophers. And if they have another in them today against Ohio State, they will come home with the tournament trophy and the Big Ten's automatic NCAA bid.

That will leave most Gophers followers celebrating, and a few with a higher standard saying, "Where was that all season?"

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP.