This was the game by which all others must be judged in the modern history of Gophers men’s basketball, even if you no longer can find details in the University of Minnesota’s official record guides:
Gophers 90, Clemson 84, in two overtimes, in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in San Antonio’s Alamodome on March 20, 1997.
This week, Rick Barnes, then the 42-year-old coach at Clemson, said: “It was one of the great ones ever. Bunch of players on both teams making tremendous plays and being physical for 50 minutes.’’
And Clem Haskins, then the 53-year-old coach of the Gophers, said: “I’ve never been more impressed with two teams — mine and Rick’s. Bobby Jackson was never better … and playing with four fouls.’’
“Do I remember that game? Two overtimes!’’ said Yevette Haskins, Clem’s wife since they were college age. “I still get nervous thinking about it.’’
Clem and Yevette have been back on the farm in Campbellsville, Ky., for two decades, since the brouhaha involving academic papers that were submitted but not written by players cost the coach his job and also official recognition of the Gophers’ one trip to the Final Four, in 1997.
Big-time college coaching has been kinder to Barnes, now 64 and in possession of 678 career wins.
One season after the Battle of the Alamodome, Barnes was hired by Texas, where he remained for 17 seasons that produced 16 trips to the NCAA tournament. Included was a Final Four in 2003, the Longhorns’ third overall, the first since 1947 and a feat that has not been repeated.
Ten days after a loss to Butler in a tournament opener in 2015, Barnes was fired. Steve Patterson, the Texas athletic director, said he wanted a coach to take the Longhorns to the “next level.’’
Barnes now has a team at that next level — that being the Tennessee Volunteers, currently 17-1, on a 13-game winning streak and in their first week of carrying the No. 1 rating in the national polls.
Back in Austin, Texas, Patterson was fired six months after he dropped Barnes, and his hire, Shaka Smart, has not been able to justify the hot-commodity status that he gained at Virginia Commonwealth.
Tennessee was forced to fire Donnie Tyndall after one season in 2014-15, due to recruiting mischief that followed him from Southern Miss. Barnes was announced as Tennessee’s coach on March 31, two days after being let go at Texas.
Tennessee was 15-19 in 2015-16 and 16-16 the next, finishing 12th of 14 and then tied for ninth in the SEC regular season. Admiral Schofield was the lone Tyndall signee inherited by Barnes who has an important role four seasons later with the No. 1-rated Vols.
“We have players and coaches who went through some tough times here,’’ Barnes said by phone this week. “The strength is a group of players knowing that we need each other to succeed.
“This league is really good, filled with places that are tough to play. The important thing is not being No. 1. It’s winning as many of those games as you can. We have players that enjoy being in those tough games, that love to compete.’’
Tennessee had been rated No. 1 in the polls only once previously: in the week of Feb. 24, 2008. Two days after ascending to the top, Bruce Pearl’s Vols lost 72-69 at Vanderbilt. That Vandy team was rated and it wasn’t much of an upset.
These Vols got to No. 1 on Monday and went to play Vandy at Memorial Gymnasium (on a goofier court than Williams Arena) Wednesday. This Vanderbilt team was winless in the SEC; it only played as if it was ranked by throwing in bombs left and right late in the shot clock. The Vols’ Grant Williams would not be denied — 43 points, including 23-for-23 on free throws — and Tennessee survived, 88-83 in overtime.
Williams, a wonderful 6-foot-8 inside player, was encouraged by his parents to take an offer from Yale. He decided on Tennessee after being impressed with a plan laid out by Barnes that would improve him as a player. Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden were also in that class. Kyle Alexander, 6-11, and guard LaMonte Turner were spring signees for Barnes in 2015.
Tough times at first; now good times.
“For the last year and a half, the fans in Knoxville have been very excited about this team,’’ Barnes said. “Our arena has been filling up, and that takes 20,000 fans.’’
Tennessee tied with Auburn for the SEC regular-season title in 2017-18 and went into the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed in the South Regional. The Vols were upset in the second round by the Loyola Ramblers, the long shots that went to the Final Four.
“Loyola had that Sister on its side,’’ Bud Ford said. “We couldn’t beat the Sister.’’
Ford was a longtime sports information director at Tennessee. He was referring to Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun who accompanied Loyola on its improbable run.
Tennessee long has been the poor cousin to neighboring Kentucky in men’s basketball. Since 1945, Kentucky has won or shared 40 regular-season titles in the SEC and Tennessee has been in on seven. Kentucky has been to 17 Final Fours and won eight; Tennessee has not played in one.
Pearl’s 2010 team lost to Michigan State 70-69 in a regional final. That’s it for the Vols — one near miss. Pearl was run off a season later due to NCAA violations and now is at Auburn.
Bud Ford was on the scene when Tennessee had its most famous previous basketball days: those three winters from 1974 to 1977, when two New Yorkers, Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld, were lighting it up as the “Ernie and Bernie Show.’’
Or “Bernie or Ernie,’’ as it was billed on ESPN’s “30 for 30” from 2013.
“Ernie was a year ahead of him, and Bernie left a year early, so it was just those three years,’’ Ford said. “They just traded off being the high scorer. The games were in the old Stokely Athletic Center, and people came from all over to watch them.
“Bernie and Ernie made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1976, but we didn’t get to a Final Four.’’
Didn’t come close.
The two teams from the SEC in the NCAA’s first 32-team bracket in 1975 were Kentucky and Alabama. In 1976, King had a hand injury and the Vols lost in the first round to VMI (coached by former Wolves coach Bill Blair). In 1977, Syracuse outlasted Tennessee 93-88 in overtime in Baton Rouge, La., also in the first round, and in Jim Boeheim’s first season as the Syracuse coach.
Tennessee has had its moments since, with Dale Ellis and other outstanding players, but there’s now one old coach living in SEC country who thinks this could be THE moment for the Vols.
“I watch Tennessee a lot,’’ Haskins said. “Duke’s got the talent, but they can be beaten, and I think Tennessee can do it. I love Bowden off the bench, and Williams is outstanding.
“Rick Barnes has a ‘team’, and you know, Coach Haskins always told you, ‘Teams win the tough games.’ ”