In his postgame news conference Saturday, after presiding over the type of home victory the Gophers haven’t had in years — decades? a half-century? — head coach P.J. Fleck said he had delivered the game ball to the entire state of Minnesota.
Shortly after, he described getting text messages before the game from Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders, a proud Gophers alum who donned a maroon suit for Friday’s game at Target Center.
And in that moment, the benefits of the power of positive thinking and relationship-building that had been on display in the last 24 hours came into elite focus.
On a list of things Minnesota sports fans have come to believe are lost causes, two stand out: Gophers football and Andrew Wiggins.
We have been told this year that both are different, somehow changed — and that the reasons are culture, accountability and belief … along, of course, with the requisite hard work and commitment to craft that any high-level sports team demands. Both are being led by young, relatable coaches.
The Gophers and Wiggins both had promising starts to their seasons, but history has taught fans in both cases not to get too excited.
And then Friday: Wiggins exploded for 40 points, including the clutch tying basket at the end of regulation and the clinching three in overtime, to lead the Wolves to a win over a depleted Golden state team. Wiggins has improved his shot selection and delivered in three tense victories this season — against Brooklyn, Miami and the Warriors — lending early evidence to the narrative of change.
“There were a number of times [Friday] night where he could have settled, but he ended up getting himself back to the three-point line or getting himself all the way to the rim,” Saunders said of Wiggins. “So, to me, that shows an improvement.”
If anyone can cleanse the toxic energy that clearly took a toll on Wiggins the past two seasons, it’s Saunders — a 33-year-old who had Wiggins at his wedding when he was an assistant coach.
If Saunders’ substance is similar to that of Fleck, his style is far different. Saunders is measured and subdued, while those words would never be used to describe the crowd-surfing, hyper Fleck.
Add in Fleck’s outsider status compared to Saunders’ “one-of-us” cred, and there has been a healthy dose of skepticism from some corners of the Gophers-watching world as to whether what he is selling is genuine and whether it will work. There is an urge to roll your eyes when he ways things like “we’re 1-0 in the Penn State season.”
You can like or dislike Fleck’s personality, but we should be 100% in agreement on this: The Gophers play like a well-coached team, and that means what he is doing is working. He fills players with confidence, holds them accountable and insists that they live with the results, good or bad.
The byproduct is players who deliver in clutch moments, as so often happened in the nonconference season and in Saturday’s wondrous upset of Penn State.
“This is what we can become,” Fleck said Saturday. “Gotta let go of all [those negative thoughts about] 50 years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years. … We’ve got to change at some point.”
It did Saturday, after an appetizer Friday courtesy of Saunders, Wiggins and the Wolves. Both coaches are aware that there are skeptics. Fleck, in particular, is keenly self-aware of how his message is received.
“I’m not for everybody,” Fleck has repeatedly said during his tenure as Gophers coach.
But you know what is? Winning, and feeling good doing it.