With all the excitement about college basketball in the air, it’s a good time to review the Gophers program and consider how they can emulate what Big Ten schools such as Wisconsin and Michigan State have accomplished by making numerous trips to the NCAA tournament.

The Gophers haven’t made it easy on themselves to produce a winning program over the past 30 years, with a number of problems that hindered any ongoing success. As Richard Pitino looks ahead to his third year as Gophers coach and tries to build the program, he’ll have to steer clear of such problems.

The university is the only Division I school in all sports in the state but lost three of Minnesota’s top recruits to other schools last year, and a number of coaches with great reputations have turned down the opportunity to coach the Gophers. That’s amazing when you consider that Iowa has four D-I schools, and three of them made the NCAA tournament this year in Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Iowa. Wisconsin has four D-I schools, and while only the Badgers made the tournament this year, Wisconsin was joined by Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the field a year ago.

The Gophers did have Jim Dutcher, one of the best coaches they ever had, going 190-113 and 98-89 in conference play over 11 seasons. Dutcher was the last coach to lead the Gophers to a Big Ten title when they went 23-6 and 14-4 in conference play in 1981-1982 and reached the Sweet 16. (Clem Haskins’ title was disallowed by the NCAA.)

Dutcher resigned midseason in 1985-1986 because of a number of factors, including the arrest of three of his players on sexual assault charges in Wisconsin that led to the Gophers forfeiting a Big Ten game. The Gophers were 13-7 and 3-3 in the Big Ten at the time of his resignation. Dutcher also resigned because of the way then acting University of Minnesota president Ken Keller handled the situation, suspending the three players who were later acquitted of the charges.

Then there was Haskins, who coached the Gophers for 13 seasons. He won a Big Ten title, reached the Final Four, made a Sweet 16 and Elite Eight run in the tournament, and took six different teams to the tournament overall.

But of course, five of his seasons were vacated, including the Final Four season and Big Ten championship in 1996-1997, when an academic fraud scandal came to light in 1999 and he was fired.

Dan Monson and Tubby Smith had unremarkable runs at the university. Monson couldn’t quite get over the hump and finished no higher than tied for fourth in the Big Ten over eight seasons. Smith continually had issues with players transferring, leaving many of his squads shorthanded. And even though Smith won 20 or more games in five of his six seasons, his highest finish in the conference was sixth and he won only one NCAA tournament game.

Now it is up to Pitino to instill a new confidence in this Gophers program, and even though they won the NIT in his first season, this year’s squad didn’t quite meet expectations and the Gophers failed to reach a postseason tournament for the first time since 2010-2011.

Yes, there’s no question the Gophers basketball program is overdue for a successful run in the Big Ten and the NCAA tournament, because it has been 30 years of tough results.

Dutcher still watches

Even though Dutcher hasn’t coached in nearly 30 years, he still stays close to the game. His son, Brian, is the head assistant coach to Steve Fisher at San Diego State, which lost to Tyus Jones and Duke last weekend, and Jim has kept a close eye on the NCAA tournament. Brian will succeed the 70-year-old Fisher when he retires.

Jim was asked for his take on the tournament so far.

“You have to start with Wisconsin, a No. 1 seed. I think this is the best team Bo Ryan has had,” he said. “They’ve won [34] games. They’re really playing at a high level. Frank Kaminsky is probably going to be national player of the year. Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are both having outstanding years. They lost [Traevon] Jackson, one of their point guards, but the backup, [Josh] Gasser, has played well. I think Wisconsin has a great chance [to win the tournament].”

Dutcher said one of the refreshing things about the Badgers is Kaminsky’s decision to come back and play this season.

“He’s going to be a high lottery pick in the NBA draft and that is so great to see,” Dutcher said. “He is not a one-and-done player. He had four years at Wisconsin, got better every year, and right now is just a great college basketball player.”

Jottings

• For a long time Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor refused to admit he would be involved in the ownership of a local Major League Soccer team. Finally on Wednesday at the Wolves-Lakers game, Taylor admitted he would be involved in ownership with the Dr. Bill McGuire group but said, “You will never hear me talking soccer.”

• Stadiums have played a big part in major league sports here. The Washington Senators never would have moved here if Met Stadium wasn’t built in 1956 and Calvin Griffith, the owner of the team, hadn’t been promised the stadium would be immediately expanded in size. If the Metrodome hadn’t been built and opened in 1982, the Vikings and Twins might not have stayed here. So the state has a history of building stadiums when needed, and that bodes well for Minnesota United FC in getting its soccer stadium problem solved.

• Nikola Pekovic, who is in the midst of a five-year, $60 million contract (all guaranteed), missed 28 games last season and 40 so far this year.

The big center from Montenegro said he will spend the offseason trying to find a way to stay healthy.

“We’ll try to heal it up, we’ll see how, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see some different doctors.”

• Tre Jones, the younger brother of Tyus and a freshman at Apple Valley, had a great state tournament, averaging 12.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steal per game over three contests to win the Class 4A title. His coach, Zach Goring, was asked about Tre’s potential: “Well, I’m not sure, he’s pretty young yet, just being a ninth-grader,” Goring said. “The thing I was a little skeptical going into the season was, is he going to be compared to Tyus all season? People have Tyus so fresh in their mind since he was just a senior [a year ago], and then Tre is a freshman. He has had a phenomenal year for us and really shown significant improvement throughout the year. The last six games in the playoffs, he was just spectacular.”

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com