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Gophers’ Best Makes Cards Collapse

March 21, 2019 - (0) comments

 

Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino called it a “perfect game.” Three former Golden Gophers coaches told Sports Headliners Minnesota’s 86-76 win over the Louisville Cardinals this afternoon was the team’s best performance of 2019. A friend in Des Moines for the NCAA Tournament game described it as beautiful to watch.

However you want to say it, the Gophers gave a success-starved program and fan base a very happy Thursday afternoon by winning their opening game in the East Region that features national powers Duke and Michigan State, No. 1 and 2 seeds.

Pitino made the “perfect” reference on his postgame radio show heard in Minneapolis-St. Paul on KFXN Radio. He was elated to win his first ever NCAA Tournament game in the closing weeks of his sixth season at Minnesota. The tourney win was just the program’s second in six tries since 2000.

Pitino’s team has experienced highs and lows this season. The Gophers had a stretch where they lost six of seven games in February, before rallying to win five of their last seven including today in a dominant performance against Louisville. At times things have been difficult off the court, too, including the death of guard Dupree McBrayer’s mom. Minnesota has been resilient, though. “It’s been a really fun group to coach,” Pitino said after the game.

The Gophers have embraced the underdog role in recent weeks and again today as they upset No. 7 East Region seed Louisville. As the No. 10 seed, Minnesota wasn’t expected to win against a Cardinals bunch—that while stumbling of late—held a win over powerful North Carolina and almost took down Duke, the nation’s No. 1 ranked team.

Louisville, North Carolina and Duke are programs with a historic ACC pedigree, but the Gophers weren’t intimidated today. “They  played a much more aggressive game (than typical),” said former Minnesota assistant coach Al Nuness. “They were aggressive defensively. They were up in their (the Cardinals’) chests defensively. They went after loose balls. They just played a lot more aggressive than Louisville did. Louisville kind of played passive.”

Nuness, also a former Gopher captain as a player, referred to Minnesota’s performance as “by far” its best of the season. “The best all around game,” he said. “Defensively they played great. Offensive rebounding they played great. Shooting, especially from the three point line…they played very good. Turnovers, I think they had maybe five for the whole game.”

Nuness was also impressed with the coaching of Pitino and his staff. The Gophers, he said, changed up defenses including using a full court press. Louisville specializes in three pointers but Minnesota held the Cardinals to nine made threes and 34.6 percent on conversions.

Richard Pitino

“They played a heck of a game,” said Jim Dutcher, who coached the Gophers to the 1982 Big Ten championship. He called the win the biggest of Pitino’s six years at Minnesota.

Bill Fitch, another former Minnesota head coach who went on to become one of the winningest coaches in NBA history, likened NCAA Tournament games to “strangers” meeting for a first time. Why? Because usually the teams are from different conferences and not that familiar with one another. Halftimes, Fitch said, become important because that’s when new strategies may surface. “I thought Minnesota did a very good job of adjusting. …The whole game was decided by that 12-0 run at the start of the second half.”

The Gophers, who built their second half lead to 19, had 11 three pointers in the game, including two from power forward Jordan Murphy who entered the game with just six in the previous 34 games. When the Gophers came out of halftime leading 38-33, Murphy hit a three pointer to start the Minnesota run. “When you get him shooting three pointers, you got something going,” said Fitch, who praised how Minnesota responded to Louisville’s late game press and poise throughout the afternoon.

Gophers loyalist Steve Hunegs was among the couple thousand or more Minnesota fans in Wells Fargo Arena today who saw Minnesota make 11 three point shots. Those fans shook the building with the “Minnesota Rouser” and provided a home court advantage. Hunegs wrote this via email:

“As you saw, the players played beautifully and the coaches coached beautifully. … There was much ‘Williams Arena will’ among the thousands of Minnesota fans who made the trip.”

The Gophers’ record is now 22-13, while Louisville is 20-14. Next up for Minnesota is a rematch against Big Ten champion Michigan State, a team that defeated the Gophers 79-55 in February in East Lansing. “From here on out, it gets tougher (advancing in the tournament),” Fitch said.

Dutcher thinks Minnesota has a “good chance” of winning, though, noting the Spartans are known for scoring droughts. If the Gophers can guard like they did today, covering both the perimeter and interior like seldom before, it could make things interesting.

Unlike this afternoon when the teams didn’t know each other that well, there will be all kinds of storylines the coaches will be anticipating. Dutcher said MSU power player Nick Ward has bullied the Gophers inside in the past, although he has been playing with a hand brace. Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu and Murphy (slowed by back spasms today) will have to respond.

Gabe Kalscheur led the Gophers in scoring against the Cardinals with 24 points and made five of 11 three pointers, the best of anyone in the game. Kalscheur had some open looks that indicated the Cardinals weren’t all that familiar with his long distance ability.

“If he’s got room to eye the basket, he’s a very, very good three point shooter, and he shot well all year,” Dutcher said. “The Big Ten teams where they see each other so often they’re aware of that. They’re (the Spartans) gonna press up on him. (Michigan State coach Tom) Izzo is going to make him put the ball on the floor. They’re not going to give him a wide open three.”

Pitino compared today’s game to a “war.” Against the physical Spartans, the war figures to escalate on Saturday.

Worth Noting

Gophers basketball reserves Hunt Conroy, Michael Hurt and Brady Rudrud were among the 928 Big Ten student-athletes competing in winter sports who were announced yesterday as Academic All-Conference. To be honored student-athletes must be enrolled fulltime at their institution for a minimum of 12 months and carry a cumulative grade-point average of 3.0 or higher.

Saturday night’s WCHA men’s playoffs title game at the Verizon Center in Mankato was a near sellout as of late yesterday afternoon. The championship game has sold out the last two years at other sites and this year matches regular season champ Minnesota State against Bowling Green.

Three of the top four teams in the latest USCHO national rankings are Minnesota programs, with St. Cloud State No. 1; Minnesota State, No. 2; and Minnesota Duluth No. 3. Massachusetts is No. 4. The Gophers aren’t ranked but Bob Motzko, who just finished his first season as head coach, has the reputation of being an outstanding recruiter and is likely to make Minnesota a power again.

The Twin Cities-based WCHA remains a favorite to add Arizona State as a member in a couple of years. Because ASU is playing and scheduling as an independent, the Sun Devils haven’t played a game since March 2 and won’t be back on the ice until March 29 when they participate as an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament.

 

Sano Absence May Impact Division Race

March 20, 2019 - 1 Comment

 

Enjoy a Wednesday notes column leading off with the Twins, and including basketball and football newsmakers.

The Twins start playing meaningful games next week when the regular season begins, and they are a popular pick to finish second in the mediocre AL Central Division. The more optimistic fans and media were thinking division title during the offseason, but now maybe less so with puzzling slugger Miguel Sano not expected in the lineup until May.

The Indians have won three consecutive division championships and while the roster doesn’t look as formidable as in the past, the club is anchored by probably baseball’s best starting staff. Those starters could lead the way to 90+ wins, while the Twins are a smart choice to win 80 to 85.

Sano told Sports Headliners a few years ago he might be capable of producing Miguel Cabrera type hitting numbers. “I can be better than Cabrera, I think,” he said in the summer of 2015. Sano, though, isn’t even close to matching the numbers of the future Tigers’ Hall of Famer. The Twins’ third baseman began his MLB career in 2014 and his play has been characterized as much by injuries as production at the plate.

The 6-foot-4 Sano, with a .199 batting average, didn’t even come close to hitting his weight (260) last season. He is out until possibly the time of his 26th birthday on May 11. Sano, whose latest problem is with his heel, tantalized the Twins in 2017 with his 28 home runs and 77 RBI. His presence in the lineup from the beginning of this season would have added confidence to those predicting a first Twins division championship since 2010.

It will be interesting to see how the Twins’ pitching staff develops including the late innings situation. Perhaps the club will not have an ace closer, instead using a few different relief pitchers in that role.

Minnesota’s regular season and home opener against the Indians will be played late afternoon on Thursday of next week, with Accuweather.com predicting a day time high of 56 degrees. The three-game series with the Indians also has scheduled day time dates at Target Field on March 30 and 31 when temps are predicted to be in the 40’s.

On opening day the club is giving away Twins puffer vests to the first 30,000 fans. Former Twin and AL MVP Justin Morneau will throw out the ceremonial first pitch, with Minneapolis song writer and performer Sean Tillman (aka Har Mar Superstar) singing the National Anthem.

As of this morning on the Twins’ ticket website, there were tickets available for the opener ranging in cost from $17 to $31.

There were rumors last week junior Gophers forward Michael Hurt will transfer to the college destination of his superstar brother Matthew Hurt, a senior at Rochester John Marshall. The possibility was mentioned to me months ago but I chose not to write about the speculation.

Michael would be eligible to play next season with his brother who has yet to announce his college choice, and could be destined to the NBA in another year via the 2020 league draft. Michael is a three-year reserve who this season is averaging 1.7 points per game and is 1 of 13 on three point field goal attempts. If he were to leave Minnesota, that presumably opens up a scholarship for the Gophers who have multiple roster needs for next season and should be shopping for junior college help.

Matthew, 6-foot-9, is so skilled he can excel at multiple positions. The bluebloods of college basketball, including Duke and North Carolina, would welcome the five-star recruit, and perhaps his brother—allowing the twosome to play one year together.

It will be a major surprise if Matthew isn’t announced as the state’s Mr. Basketball winner at the Timberwolves game on March 26. Hurt, who averaged about 37 points per game this season, won’t be in attendance because he will play among the nation’s elite players at the March 27 McDonald’s All-American Game in Atlanta.

A member of John Marshall’s varsity since eighth grade, Hurt has closed out his high school career never having played in the state tournament. Lakeville North has blocked Marshall’s path to the state tournament by winning seven consecutive times in the section finals.

Among the favorites to win the Class 4A Tournament this week is Hopkins with star center-power forward Zeke Nnjai. He is committed to Arizona for next season but if Wildcats coach Sean Miller leaves the program speculation will start about Nnjai’s college destination.

The Gophers, in search of a point guard all season, could have filled that opening two years ago by successfully recruiting Champlin Park’s McKinley Wright, who as a sophomore at Colorado has been named first team All-Pac-12. He also was an honorable mention choice for the league’s all-defensive team.

CBS lead sportscaster Jim Nantz, who will be here for the Minneapolis Final Four, gave a shout-out to 99-year-old Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman on last Saturday’s telecast of the Minnesota-Michigan Big Ten Tournament game, and he told the listening audience he will speak to the Twin Cities Dunkers when he is town. The downtown-Minneapolis based Dunkers dates back to 1948 and Hartman has been a member since 1965.

Purdue, who the Gophers defeated twice in March, is an upset pick to make a run in the NCAA Tournament including a prediction by Seth Davis the Boilermakers will advance to the Minneapolis Final Four. Davis, the CBS in-studio college hoops analyst, is the son of Lanny Davis, the well-known lawyer and TV political commentator.

Steve Erban and Paul Dillion are among Gophers fans expected in Des Moines tomorrow for Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament game against Louisville. Erban emailed that the two are the only people who have seen every Gopher NCAA Tournament game dating back to 1989.

Gophers’ athletic director Mark Coyle said on the WCCO Radio Sports Huddle show last Sunday that about $130 million out of the $166 million targeted cost has been raised for the new Athlete’s Village on campus.

Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck, new North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz, and former Vikings Matt Birk and Ben Leber are headline speakers at next week’s MFCA Football Clinic at the DoubleTree in St. Louis Park. More than 30 speakers and over 50 sessions are scheduled for the March 28-30 clinic. More at mnfootballcoaches.com

Karl-Anthony Towns had his 47th double-double of the season last night when he scored 26 points and got 21 rebounds in the Timberwolves’ loss to the Warriors at Target Center.

Mike Zimmer

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer hosts his first Mike Zimmer Golf Classic at Bearpath Golf and Country Club in Eden Prairie on Monday, May 13. The event is part of the Mike Zimmer Foundation. Hole sponsorships starting at a $1,000 are available. More at Mikezimmerfoundation.org.

Looks like Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman were right about quarterback Case Keenum who they let walk as a free agent last year. The Broncos, who signed Keenum in 2018, traded him to the Redskins earlier this month and now have turned to another veteran, Joe Flacco, as their quarterback leader. Keenum is with his fourth team in four years.

Ex-Gopher Phil Nelson, who received a lot of media and fan attention last month for a no-look pass, has completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 513 yards, and thrown three touchdown passes and three interceptions, quarterbacking the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football, according to noextrapoints.com.

 

U NCAA Tourney Run Looks Unlikely

March 18, 2019 - (0) comments

 

Golden Gophers players and fans are understandably excited about the team earning an invitation yesterday to the NCAA Tournament, but it will probably be a “short dance” for coach Richard Pitino’s team.

After 34 games, including many against quality opposition, there are no more secrets about this club. Before the season a lot of media didn’t think the sixth edition of the Pitino era was talented enough to qualify for the “Big Dance,” but the Gophers mostly rode the twosome of forward Jordan Murphy and guard Amir Coffey to several successes including defeating nationally ranked Purdue twice this month.

Coffey at No. 7 in points per game and Murphy at No. 11 are among Big Ten’s best scoring combos. Only Indiana’s Romeo Langford at No. 6 and Juwan Morgan at No. 9 are a higher scoring duo in the Big Ten.

Coffey saved his best for last this season, averaging 23.8 points per game in helping Minnesota win four of its last six games. He is a multi-skilled player who offensively gives the Gophers outside and inside scoring, including in the deciding moments of games. “His skill set is off the charts,” said CBS analyst Grant Hill during Saturday’s Minnesota-Michigan game in the Big Ten Tournament.

Coffey is averaging 16.3 points per game, while Murphy is at 14.9. Few college players are better inside scorers than Murphy who consistently bulls his way to the basket. Without Murphy’s Big Ten leading rebounding, the Gophers could not have come close to putting together a 21-13 season. That record earned the Gophers an NCAA Tournament assignment to play Thursday in Des Moines against Louisville in a East Region game.

Minnesota is likely to struggle in the tournament, though, because there isn’t enough talent and experience on the roster to complement Coffey and Murphy. The Gophers went a combined 3-8 against the Big Ten’s five best teams (over .500 records in league play). They were 2-1 against Purdue, split two games with Wisconsin and finished 0-1 versus Michigan State, 0-2 against Maryland and 0-3 in matchups with Michigan.

In every Gopher game, it’s an unknown as to which player—if anyone—steps up and complements Coffey and Murphy. Sometimes it’s been freshman starting center Daniel Oturu, who has the talent to some day be All-Big Ten like Coffey and Murphy. Fellow freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur shows promise offensively and defensively, but inconsistent shooting is a problem. That’s true, too, of senior guard Dupree McBrayer.

The better teams, the ones who advance far in the tournament field, don’t struggle to score points, including three pointers. At 5.2 made three pointers per game, few teams have found shooting beyond the arc any more challenging than Minnesota. Opponents are averaging 6.7 three pointers converted and have 50 more makes than the Gophers.

Bench help?

Pitino has been using fewer reserves in recent weeks. Those subs usually are in for limited minutes to provide short amounts of rest for the starters. They play hard and contribute in subtle ways, but their scoring production is limited. In Minnesota’s 75-73 Big Ten Tournament upset of Purdue on Friday, the bench players produced zero points, while Murphy and Coffey combined for 48 points.

Maybe the Gophers can make a Cinderella run in the tourney but their resume doesn’t support that prediction. As a No. 10 seed they are underdogs against Louisville. If Minnesota wins Thursday, East No. 2 seed Michigan State (ouch) likely awaits the Gophers on Saturday.

Worth Noting

The Gophers are one of eight Big Ten teams invited to the NCAA Tournament. The total is the most in Big Ten history.

Brian Cosgriff

Brian Cosgriff, 58, added a seventh girls state tournament title Saturday night as part of his 20 year coaching career at Hopkins, and he told Sports Headliners last week he plans to continue coaching for awhile. His roster is loaded with returnees—14 of 18 players back for next season including daughter Brooke Cosgriff.

Four of five starters return including point guard Paige Bueckers who could turn out to be the best prep player nationally in the class of 2020. Bueckers plays unselfishly on the court, and has given her time to organize a series of free basketball clinics for youth.

Sid Hartman, whose 99th birthday was last Friday, got his first by-lined story in Minneapolis newspapers on November 1, 1944, per his book Sid Hartman’s Great Minnesota Sports Memories. Before going to work as a journalist for the Minneapolis Times for $11.50 per week, Hartman’s previous newspaper work was in high school at Minneapolis North. Still now writing multiple columns per week in Minneapolis, he wrote his first column for the Times on September 13, 1945.

Governor Tim Walz, MLS commissioner Don Garber, the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul and other dignitaries are scheduled to speak this afternoon at the Minnesota United’s ‘Scarf Raising’ ceremony to commemorate the opening of Allianz Field, the privately-financed soccer specific stadium in St. Paul. MNUFC’s home opener at Allianz Field, a nationally televised game on ESPN 2 against New York City FC, will be Saturday, April 13 starting at 4 p.m.

Have to wonder about ticket demand for tomorrow night’s Timberwolves game at Target Center against the defending NBA champion Warriors when Ticket King was promoting $29 tickets via email several days ago. The Wolves per game home attendance average of 14,981 ranks 29th out of 30 teams, per Espn.com.

 

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