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Pitino Moves Lift Gopher Outlook

May 17, 2018 - (0) comments

 

It’s been an interesting couple of months since Richard Pitino’s Golden Gophers finished their disappointing 15-17 season. Minnesota’s head basketball coach has replaced two assistant coaches (Ben Johnson and Kimani Young who took other jobs) and added three players.

In five seasons leading the Gophers Pitino has produced one NCAA Tournament team and only one year been above .500 in Big Ten games. Last season was among the most disappointing in program history—starting out with conference title dreams and collapsing in January with the suspension of center Reggie Lynch and the shoulder injury to Amir Coffey.

Pitino is on the hot seat with fans, and perhaps the University of Minnesota administration, but next season looks intriguing. The versatile Coffey returns, ready to help at forward or guard. The junior from Hopkins High School should be among the Big Ten’s better players, and joins senior forward Jordan Murphy in that category. A third starter returns in senior guard Dupree McBrayer, plus Minnesota has promising talent in sophomore guard Isaiah Washington and redshirt sophomore forward Eric Curry.

Pitino’s in-state recruiting reputation got a boost with the incoming freshmen class of three Minnesotans—Gabe Kalscheur (DeLaSalle), Jarvis Omersa (Orono), and Daniel Oturu (Cretin-Derham Hall). It was painful for Gopher fans watching former Maple Grove all-stater Brad Davison star for the Badgers last season as one of the better freshmen point guards in the country. Word is Davison is already revered in Madison, not only as a player but for his character and leadership.

Pitino’s freshmen will add depth next fall, and promise for more help in future seasons. Oturu’s recent shoulder surgery is a setback for his offseason development and could mean his early minutes in nonconference games are more limited than they otherwise would be. Oturu could be the team’s center of the future and is a multi-skilled player.

Omersa, a forward, is gifted athletically and also played football as a prep. Kalscheur, a guard, was a superb prep shooter. Pitino, who has reportedly made scholarship offers to several in-state high school players for future years, realizes there is a lot of high quality local talent.

Three transfers from other colleges have also boosted offseason spirits. The latest to announce for Minnesota is Wisconsin-Milwaukee transfer guard Brock Stull who will have one season of eligibility with the Gophers. He was recruited to Milwaukee by new Gopher assistant Rob Jeter when Jeter was head coach there. The 6-4 Stull led the Panthers last season in assists with 3.1 per game, was second in scoring at 13.4 points and third in rebound average, 4.8.

Jeter’s experience includes 11 seasons as head coach at UW-Milwaukee where he developed Midwest recruiting connections. Last season he was an assistant coach at UNLV where the 2017-2018 recruiting class was ranked as high as No. 12 in the nation. That group included a McDonald’s high school All-American and national junior college player of the year.

Jeter joined the staff in April and then last week Pitino announced Kyle Lindsted will also be an assistant coach. Lindsted was an assistant the last three seasons for a strong Wichita State program. “We are very excited about the addition of Kyle to our basketball program,” Pitino said in a statement. “He’s a great recruiter and will bring a lot to our team. He’s got contacts all over the world and a wealth of knowledge about the game.”

Stull is a welcome addition to the roster because the Gophers need talent and depth in the backcourt. Fingers are crossed in Dinkytown that the NCAA will rule that Pitt transfer Marcus Carr will be granted immediate eligibility for next fall. As a freshman he started all but five games for Pitt, averaging 10 points per game and leading in assists with 129, a 4.0 average. Because Pitt coach Kevin Stallings was fired after last season, Carr might be able to play right away at Minnesota if the NCAA makes a ruling allowing such players immediate eligibility. Otherwise he will have to redshirt one season.

A third transfer, guard Payton Willis from Vanderbilt, must sit out next season before becoming eligible to play during the 2019-2020 season. After starting 16 of 66 games over two seasons at Vandy, he will have two years of eligibility with the Gophers and strengthens the guard roster for the future.

There have been a lot of changes in a short time for Pitino’s program. Give him credit for being proactive and creating optimism about the future.

Worth Noting

This week’s ESPN baseball power rankings have the Angels at No. 4 behind the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros. The Twins, who split four games with the Angeles last Thursday-Sunday, are No. 19.

The Cardinals, who the Twins split a two-game series with Tuesday and Wednesday, are ranked No. 6. The Twins swept the Cardinals in St. Louis on May 7 and 8.

The Brewers, who come to Minneapolis for a three-game series starting Friday, are No. 12.

After yesterday’s game Joe Mauer has 2,025 career hits with the Twins. That ranks No. 6 on the all-time Twins/Senators franchise list, trailing Sam Rice (2,887), Kirby Puckett (2,304), Joe Judge (2,291), Clyde Milan (2,100) and Rod Carew (2,085).

Former Twin pitcher Jack Morris turned 63 yesterday. Morris has been working on his induction speech for this summer when he goes into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Allotted time for speeches is eight minutes, although most everyone exceeds the total.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer will host a youth football camp for children in grades 1-8 at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Saturday and Sunday. There is a waitlist to participate in the camp that provides not only football instruction but tips on healthy living.

The annual Minnesota Vikings Golf Tournament is June 6 at the Meadows at Mystic Lake. The Taste of the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium will be June 12.

John Anderson

Gophers baseball coach John Anderson has some pro prospects on his team but points out “less than one percent” of college players make the big leagues.

Anderson’s first-place Gophers can win the Big Ten title by sweeping their three-game series at Rutgers that begins today.

Sad to see the passing of my friend Dennis McGrath, the public relations great who was always so encouraging to others. Dennis had many interests including boxing, a sport he followed with passion. Condolences to family and friends.

Condolences also to family and friends of Joe Shrake, the former Winona Cotter pitcher and DeLaSalle baseball coach who passed away several days ago.

 

Pack My Bags, Sports Trips Beckon

May 15, 2018 - (0) comments

 

I need to credit Jay Buckley’s Baseball Tours for today’s column idea. The company is promoting a September weekend in Seattle where customers can watch the University of Washington Huskies, Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Mariners—and I am tempted to sign-up.

I’ve always wanted to visit Seattle and the surrounding area. High on my wish list is seeing a UW game at iconic Husky Stadium overlooking Lake Washington. The venue is among the more revered in college football.

I am always up for visiting stadiums and arenas. My wife doesn’t share the same curiosity and enthusiasm, but she didn’t balk Sunday when I suggested stopping in Jordan, Minnesota to have a look at the “Mini Met.” First time visitor, but planning to go back and see the hometown baseball Brewers.

I give my wife a thumbs up for a planned trip to Athens, Georgia this fall. Her niece and husband will be hosting us for the Georgia-Auburn football game. I’ve always wanted to sample the hoopla of an SEC Conference football game and my day arrives on November 10.

I am excited to see the gameday atmosphere and the competition on the field between the Bulldogs and Tigers, two teams that could be in the chase for the national championship. And the anticipation of this trip also involves a stop in Atlanta to see the College Football Hall of Fame. I have visited the halls of fame for pro football, baseball, basketball and hockey but not the college shrine in Atlanta where there is sure to be some Golden Gophers memorabilia.

With inspiration from the Jay Buckley folks and my wife, I am listing below baseball, basketball, football, golf, hockey and tennis trips I am all in on—time, money and other priorities allowing.

Baseball

Cooperstown. I made a visit a long time ago and have always wanted to return. I could wander the halls of baseball’s shrine for days, and the town of Cooperstown is a charmer.

Fenway Park

Fenway Park. The quirky home of the Red Sox has beckoned for years but despite a couple of trips to Boston I have yet to experience Fenway. Great town, great food and the basketball hall of fame is only a few hours away. Sign me up now.

AT&T Park. I haven’t been to San Francisco since the Giants opened their beautiful waterfront stadium at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. Give me a couple of days at the park, and then on to the wine country a short drive away.

Basketball

I have seen games in Madison Square Garden and the old Boston Garden so I am happy to check those off my list. NBA teams change venues so fast that 28-year-old Target Center falls into the “grandpa” category. The league doesn’t have any venues that make my heart pound so I will stick with the college scene.

Phog Allen Field House. This isn’t where the first peach basket was hung, but Wilt Chamberlain played there for the Jayhawks and the address is 1651 Naismith Drive. A “Beware of the Phog” banner looms on the north end of the court. “Rock, chalk, Jayhawks!”

Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke’s home arena would top most any poll of college fans for a “must-see” venue. You can count on my vote. It’s kind of crazy that this place doesn’t even seat 10,000 but is referred to as a stadium. Seems like the Dukies have almost that many championships.

Football

This is where the list could get unmanageable, but here is my Fab Five.

Bryant-Denny Stadium. The home of the Alabama Crimson Tide probably ranks No. 1 on any list of future trips. I hear part of the gameday presentation includes a video clip of Bear Bryant growling, “I ain’t nothin’ but a winner.”

Michie Stadium. It’s been a long time since I toured West Point and I’ve never seen the Black Knights of the Hudson play in their football home since 1924. That has my attention and needs to change.

Rose Bowl. I saw Minnesota defeat UCLA, 21-3, in the 1962 Rose Bowl. Very sad the Gophers haven’t been able to earn their way back to one of the most majestic venues in sports. I am ready to return to Pasadena without them.

Lambeau Field. I write this with embarrassment. Never been to Lambeau but I will change part of that in June when we visit the stadium—while wishing it was fall and the Packers were playing.

Husky Stadium. We covered this in paragraph two, but permit me to add how cool it would be to arrive at the stadium via boat on Lake Washington. Prefer by yacht, if not asking for too much.

Hockey

Bell Centre. This choice is a little tricky. Let me explain. Years ago I was at the Montreal Forum, referred to by many as the “most storied building in hockey history.” But the Forum has been in decline for a long while and the NHL Canadiens have made the Bell Centre their 21st century home. So while I feel no urgency to see the Bell, a trip to Montreal rekindles memories of the Forum. Then, too, Montreal is the closest you come to experiencing a European city while still in North America. My wife likes that.

Tennis

Wimbledon. I have been a tennis fan and player most of my life. My wife loves London. What else is there to say?

Golf

The Masters. No golf event gets me in front of the television with more passion and pleasure than the Masters. It’s not just the great tradition and the gorgeous golf course. The April tournament signals to Minnesotans the snow season will end soon.

Amen.

 

U in Position to Win Big Ten Title

May 13, 2018 - (0) comments

 

John Anderson turns 63 on Wednesday, and his Golden Gophers can give him a nice birthday present by winning the Big Ten title next weekend.

Minnesota won two of three games from Michigan State the last three days including Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the Spartans. The wins, part of the Gophers’ last regularly scheduled homestand of the year, moved Minnesota to a conference best 16-4 record.

The Gophers are at 7-14 Rutgers starting on Thursday for a three-game series that ends their league regular season schedule. Second place Michigan, 15-5, has three games on the same days at third place Purdue, 14-6.

Before the weekend’s series against the Spartans Anderson had seen enough of his team to offer this compliment: “It’s probably as well rounded—pitching, hitting and defense—as…any of the teams that I’ve had. We’ll see how they finish up.”

This isn’t a team of superstars like long ago when the Gophers boasted a Paul Giel, Paul Molitor or Dave Winfield. There are pro prospects but this team is defined by balance and competitiveness. Saturday Minnesota scored eight runs in the seventh inning for a comeback win over the Spartans.

The Gophers also displayed their fight a week ago today when they completed a series sweep of early season Big Ten title favorite Indiana at Siebert Field. Minnesota trailed the Hoosiers 6-3 in the eighth inning but rallied to win 7-6 in 10 innings. The Gophers hit three home runs in the eighth to ignite the comeback.

In that game Minnesota also got a first inning home run from shortstop Terrin Vavra, the son of former Twins coach Joe Vavra. “He’s probably the best player in the league,” Anderson said of his junior leader.

John Anderson

Vavra benefits from being part of a baseball family that includes older brothers who excelled in baseball. “His baseball IQ is really high,” Anderson said. “He’s talented, don’t get me wrong. But I think the intangibles—the baseball IQ, the work ethic that he puts in, the way he handles adversity and bounces back, and his ability to make the big play— I mean that’s special talent. …”

A 2018 regular season Big Ten title would be the 10th for Anderson who has been Minnesota’s head coach since 1981. His teams have won nine Big Ten Tournament championships. Seven times he has been Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Anderson is one of only three head baseball coaches at Minnesota in the last 72 years, having succeeded Dick Siebert and George Thomas. Tradition means a lot to Anderson and so do people who helped his career. Siebert and Thomas gave him coaching opportunities on their staffs. Giel, as athletic director, hired Anderson as head coach. To this day Anderson keeps mementoes of the three in his baseball binder.

Gopher Baseball Notes

At Saturday’s home game members of the 1968, 1969 and 1970 Big Ten champions, and others affiliated with those teams, were honored by the Gophers.

This is the 130th year of Gopher baseball. The program is the oldest intercollegiate sport at the University of Minnesota.

Like many fans, Anderson would welcome a return to wooden bats in college baseball. He also wants to see collegians use the same baseballs as in the majors. “It would be much easier for people to evaluate kids,” he said. “Much easier for kids to make the jump from college to professional baseball. I wish we’d just all do the same thing.”

Anderson said cost isn’t the obstacle in eliminating aluminum bats, but that Power Five conference coaches are tied into marketing commitments they don’t want to give up.

Wisconsin is the only school in the 14-member Big Ten Conference not participating in baseball. Anderson would welcome the Badgers because the Big Ten could create two seven team divisions.

Anderson spoke at the CORES luncheon last Thursday and he recognized Dick Jonckowski for his 30 years as the Gopher baseball public address announcer. The coach presented Jonckowski with a No. 30 Minnesota baseball jersey.

Jonckowski, who for years has emceed events like the CORES gatherings, is co-authoring a book about his life with Jim Bruton that is expected to be on sale in July. Copies of It’s All about Me will be available, with Jonckowski’s signature, at the September 13 CORES program when Gustavus Adolphus football coach Peter Haugen speaks to the group. CORES (coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans) meets at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Bloomington.

 

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