Today’s column analyzes the Golden Gophers’ likelihood of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, and also reports on how things are coming together for the 2019 Minneapolis Final Four.
Coach Richard Pitino’s Gophers are 16-7 overall and 6-6 in Big Ten games after losing last night to No. 19 ranked Wisconsin. Now it’s iffy whether Minnesota will earn its way into the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament. With eight regular season games remaining, plus at least one in next month’s Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers probably have to hope media authorities who have been speculating that eight, nine or even 10 Big Ten teams will make the tournament are correct.
Kenpom.com now ranks Minnesota No. 52 in the country, a nod of optimism for making the NCAA field from the college basketball expert. The Gophers sit in seventh place in the Big Ten standings, a bit of a positive, too, regarding tournament hopes. The Gophers have played some quality games this season including wins over top 20 ranked teams, but at a minimum they probably need to win five more games.
Even winning a few more games will be challenging. Minnesota is 1-4 so far in league road games, and five of the remaining eight regular season games are away from Williams Arena. Three of the last four are out of town including at Maryland versus a Terps team that could be the league’s most talented.
With a cautious perspective, where do five more wins come from? Well, defeat Indiana at home on February 16, get road wins at Rutgers and Northwestern later in the month, and win two neutral court games in the Big Ten Tournament. Rutgers and Northwestern are conference bottom feeders with records of 4-8 and 3-8.
That speculative path to the NCAA field would give Minnesota a 21-13 final record. Good enough? Perhaps, but 22-12 sounds better so maybe the Gophers can pull off a big upset against teams now ahead of them in the league standings, or win at Nebraska next week against a Cornhuskers group that has been a big disappointment to their fans.
The Gophers have their strengths including double-double machine and senior forward Jordan Murphy. Freshman center Daniel Oturu has been developing in multiple ways and will probably be a star by next season. Junior guard-forward Amir Coffey is among the league’s most versatile players and when at his best can carry the team.
But Minnesota struggles to score points. Consecutive losses this week to Big Ten powers Purdue and against Wisconsin showed that yet again, with totals of 63 and 51 against the Boilermakers and Badgers.
The most evident flaw offensively is the team’s woeful three-point shooting. Last night Minnesota made one of 13 three-point attempts. Senior guard Dupree McBrayer exemplifies the frustration. He converted one of nine field goal attempts, including zero of four three-pointers, against Wisconsin. His season three-point percentage is 29.
For the season Minnesota is making 30 percent of its three-point attempts. The Gophers rank last among Big Ten teams in total three-point shots made with 119. If the Gophers can dramatically improve their three point shooting, the prediction here of just three more wins will ratchet upward.
Want to work as a volunteer for activities involved with the 2019 Minneapolis Final Four? Well, 3,000 other potential helpers are already on a wait list for volunteer assignments.
Kate Mortenson, the executive responsible for executing things for the Minneapolis Final Four Local Organizing Committee, told Sports Headliners that 2,000 volunteer jobs were filled in one day back in December. To Mortenson, that speaks to the can-do spirit of Minnesotans. She said it seems like “everyone” asks how they can help. The attitude exemplifies the commitment of local residents to make sure things happen the right way.
Mortenson has been paid to lead the Minneapolis Final Four effort since January of 2015. The 2019 NCAA men’s basketball title game will be on Monday, April 8 at U.S. Bank Stadium. Two days earlier four teams matchup in semi-final games to determine the championship entrants.
Mortenson describes the Final Four as a multiple days event and emphasizes there is a lot more going on besides the games. The day before the semifinals the public will be admitted without charge to U.S. Bank Stadium to watch the teams practice. A fanfest takes place at the Minneapolis Convention Center from Friday through Monday. There will be interactive basketball games and clinics, a batting cage, climbing wall and other attractions, with kids 12 and under admitted free. The Minneapolis Armory will be turned into a music venue and the Nicollet Mall will feature entertainment to help celebrate the Final Four which is returning to the city for the fourth time and first time since 2001.
Mortenson has attended four previous Final Fours and she is a convert to the family atmosphere and fun surrounding college basketball’s showcase weekend. “Now I understand why people go every year,” she said.
Talk to Mortenson for a few minutes and you hear not only the professionalism with which she approaches her work, but also the enthusiasm for the Final Four experience. “The student-athlete and the collegiate feel is undeniable, and infectious,” she said. “It is paired with a coach’s convention of coaches from all over the country, from middle school through college, D-I, D-II, D-III coaches.
“So you’ve got thousands of them (coaches) walking around downtown Minneapolis, mixed in with groups of students (and) with graduates of those (Final) Four institutions who have come back for the world’s biggest college reunion feel. …”
A consulting company estimates 94,000 visitors will be in town for the Final Four. A visitor is defined as a person who comes through the MSP Airport, or travels more than an hour by car and stays in local hotels. The 2019 Final Four has a projected economic impact of $142 million. Mortenson said the figure includes $23 million in taxes and doesn’t include consumer spending that otherwise occurs during the time of the Final Four.
Economic impact estimates of major sports events are frequently viewed with skepticism. Mortenson acknowledged that, and then provided her perspective. “I feel like at that time in April, (regardless) if it’s $150 million, or if it’s $50 million, it’s $50 million more than would be there otherwise.”
Mortenson worked in news for Hubbard Broadcasting before first taking the assignment to coordinate the Minneapolis bid to the NCAA to host the Final Four, and then later being named president and CEO for the local committee’s effort to stage the mega event. She and her 14 member staff have had their share of challenges along the way in counting down to championship Monday (she can tell you it’s 59 days away), but it’s also been a rewarding experience and impressive addition to her resume.
What’s next for Mortenson after April 8? “I am going to get to know my husband again,” she said. “I am going to see one of my kids graduate from high school, and one of my kids graduate from college. We’ll have a nice respite and then—I am kind of an antsy person—there’ll be something else, I think, at some point, too.”
Ryan Burns, the college football recruiting authority from Gopherillustrated.com, believes Minnesota will sign one player tomorrow to a National Letter of Intent. Wednesday, February 6 is the second of two National Signing Days for high school and junior college players. The Gophers received commitments from almost their entire 2019 recruiting class back in December on the first National Signing Day.
Head coach P.J. Fleck and his assistants compiled a promising class months ago, rather than put themselves in a hole scrambling to fill needs tomorrow. “It’s a pretty boring day (February 6), which is exactly the way they want it,” Burns told Sports Headliners in a telephone interview on Monday. “I don’t think it’s going to be a very important day for them either, which is exactly the way they want it.”
Burns said Minnesota appears ready to sign junior college defensive back Gervarrius Owens from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. Owens is a junior college All-American who was recruited to Northeastern Oklahoma when Gophers tight end coach Clay Patterson was head coach there.
Since the first Signing Day on December 19, the Gophers have also added former Notre Dame defensive lineman Micah-Dew Treadway who played in 11 games for the Irish last season. He’s on the roster now as a graduate transfer and in June will be joined by ex-USC wide receiver Randall Grimes.
Treadway is expected to be eligible this fall, while Grimes not until 2020. Grimes was a promising 2017 USC recruit who has yet to establish himself in college football after redshirting last fall.
Probably the most important development since December Signing Day is offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca staying with Fleck. Ciarrocca turned down an opportunity last month to join new West Virginia head coach Neal Brown as offensive coordinator for the Mountaineers. After the 2017 season Cirarrocca was pursued by Auburn.
“Any time you have an SEC team trying to poach your offensive coordinator, then a Big 12-team trying to poach your offensive coordinator, I think you’re probably doing something right,” Burns said about Ciarrocca, who also worked for Fleck at Western Michigan.
Burns believes Ciarrocca having his best offensive personnel in three seasons at Minnesota likely was a factor in the coach’s decision to remain with the Gophers. Minnesota returns nine of 11 starters including potential All-Big Ten receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, and three of five players on the offensive line, a unit that at times was dominant toward the end of last season. The Gophers could have their top offensive line in years and certainly rank with the Big Ten’s best at running back with proven standouts in Shannon Brooks, Mohamed Ibrahim and Rodney Smith.
The Gophers have experienced too much change among assistant and head coaches in recent years, but the situation is stabilizing including with offensive line coach Brian Callahan returning for a second season in charge. Fleck has often praised Callahan, and Burns agrees the offensive line will be among Minnesota’s strengths in the fall.
Who does Burns believe will be the starters on the offensive line? He answered the unit will consist of left tackle Jason Dickson, left guard Blaise Andries, center Connor Olson, right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. and right tackle Daniel Faalele. All five will be expected back in 2020, too, with Olson as a redshirt junior the only upperclassman among the group.
The defensive line has only one full-time starter returning, senior end Carter Coughlin, but there is experience and talent available. There will be competition for starting assignments with Burns guessing Coughlin’s first team companions could be tackles Keonte Schad, Elijah Teague, and end Esezi Otomewo. In the annual spring game on April 13 fans will be particularly interested in seeing Schad who joins the Gophers this winter after ESPN ranked him the No. 2 junior college defensive tackle in the country.
Coughlin, linebacker Thomas Barber and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. lead the talent and experience parade for a defensive unit that gave up 35 total points in three of the last four games. Earlier in the season the defense was often a disaster including a debacle against Illinois when a poor Illini team put up 55 against Minnesota.
But that was before Joe Rossi took over as interim defensive coordinator. Since then Rossi has been given full-time authority after shutting down varied offenses in late year victories over Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. Can Rossi work his magic for a full season?
“I don’t think it’s a flash in the pan considering you look at Minnesota’s final three wins,” Burns said. “They did it against three very different offenses.“
The Gophers finished with a 7-6 overall record including their Quick Lane Bowl victory against Georgia Tech. Their impressive close to the season, including reclaiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Madison, has caught the attention on the national scene. Minnesota is ranked in the top 25 of early listings by Sporting News and other college football authorities.
Burns believes the rosy forecasts could work out on the field if Minnesota can dodge the inconsistency that characterized Fleck’s teams his first two seasons leading the Gophers. No where will consistency be more needed, Burns said, then at the quarterback position where sophomores Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad, despite success last year, are still inexperienced. Morgan started seven games, Annexstad six.
Helping with expectations, too, is what appears to be a favorable schedule with Minnesota not playing Big Ten “bullies” Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. The Gophers have South Dakota State, Georgia Southern, Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland, Penn State and Wisconsin at home. They play Fresno State, Purdue, Rutgers, Iowa and Northwestern on the road. It’s no stretch right now to speculate the Gophers could be favored in more than half of their games.
It won’t hurt either that the Gophers are generating more interest among the public than a year ago. There’s a push by the Athletic Department to capitalize on last year’s excitement and to make some seats in TCF Bank Stadium more affordable than in 2018. Expectations are that when season ticket totals are finalized in the summer there will be an increase from a year ago.
Any success Minnesota has this fall will be looked on as a sign of even better things to come. The Gophers will lose Barber, Coughlin, Brooks, Smith and Johnson (he could be the first Gopher drafted by the NFL in 2020) to graduation but the roster is so young that Fleck has a lot to build with. As of this week that roster consisted of 16 seniors, 19 juniors, 39 sophomores and 41 freshmen.
Wild owner Craig Leipold told Sports Headliners coach Bruce Boudreau’s job is secure even if the Minnesota NHL team doesn’t make the playoffs. Fans and media have speculated about Boudreau’s future for multiple reasons including the presence of new general manager Paul Fenton.
General managers often prefer to hire their own coaches. Leipold replaced Chuck Fletcher with Fenton after last season with the intent of making the Wild a better performing playoff team. The franchise has earned its way into six consecutive playoffs but is known for early exits.
Boudreau was hired as the Wild’s coach in 2016. His first two Minnesota teams exited the playoffs in the first rounds. As of today, the Wild has played well enough to be fourth in the Western Conference standings with 56 points. The team has won four more games than it has lost, reflecting inconsistent results but enough success to make the playoffs if the season ended now.
Boudreau had previous head NHL coaching jobs with the Capitals and Ducks. His teams had some playoff struggles and never made the Stanley Cup finals. That, too, was part of the reason Leipold was asked late last week if his coach’s job is safe if Minnesota doesn’t earn its way into the playoffs this spring.
“The answer is absolutely his job is safe,” Leipold said. “To be honest, we plan on making the playoffs, but there’s a lot of competition for those playoff spots, and I think Bruce has done a great job. (Defenseman Matt) Dumba going down for the season has hurt us obviously, so there are a lot of other issues if we don’t make the playoffs.
“Bruce is a spectacular coach. I still regard him as a top five in the league, as do most people. I look at it occasionally where I see a comment where a writer might say, ‘Is Bruce’s job on the line?’ Absolutely not.
“I don’t see that happening, although honestly, Paul and I have not even spoken about it. I feel certain Paul has the same feeling that I do about it.”
Leipold isn’t second-guessing his coach and general manager, nor is he doing that about the mega contracts he gave to forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter in 2012. The two free agents signed 13-year, $98 million deals.
“It was a game changer at that time,” Leipold said. “They are two special players. They continue to perform at very high levels. So the answer is unequivocally, if I had to make that decision over again, I would have made it even quicker than I did at that time. “
Parise leads the Wild in goals with 20 and in points with 45. Suter is fourth on the team in points with 34. Their skills, experience and leadership have not only paid off on the ice, Leipold said, but also financially for a franchise that regularly sells out its home games.
“They’re two players that are not lazy players,” Leipold said. “They give 100 percent all the time. The leadership that they have on the team is priceless. I wouldn’t be surprised if Suter, the way he is playing, he can play until he is 45. I am not going to be surprised if he wants another contract after this one expires.”
Parise is 35 years old, Suter 34. With several years remaining on their contracts does Leipold feel boxed in on payroll flexibility to improve his roster?
“You know I think at some point it might (be a factor), but it’s not right now,” Leipold said. “Because the average of their contract(s) is now really right on par with what top teams are paying their top players. The players now that are coming out to unrestricted free agency are making a lot more money than these two players did at that time.
“So, sure it takes $15 million (on the payroll) that we’re paying two players but the contributions that they make are well worth that money that we’re paying every year. So I have no regrets. None at all about that signing.”
Although the sale began just last Friday, about 10,000 tickets have already been sold to the public for the October 19 Saint John’s-St. Thomas football game at Allianz Field in St. Paul. A source involved with the game said about 4,000 tickets remain in the 19,500 seat facility that opens later this year as the home of soccer’s Minnesota United. Almost 5,000 seats are being held for a sale later in the year to students from both schools.
More than 1,000 VIP and ringside seats at an average price of $85 have been sold for the February 23 boxing card at the Minneapolis Armory. The card includes Minneapolis welterweight Jamal James, ranked No. 3 in the world by the World Boxing Association, against Janer Gonzalez of Colombia, winner of 19 bouts with only one loss and a draw. The main event matches Andre Dirrell (32-1-1) against once-beaten Avni Yildirim (21-1) for the vacant WBC World Super Middleweight title.
Coincidences: former Vikings quarterback Wade Wilson and ex-Twins center fielder Lenny Green both died this year on their birthdays. Wilson, 60, died on February 1, while Green, 86, passed away on January 6.
A player Vikings fans can look at with envy tonight in the Super Bowl is Rams offensive left tackle Andrew Whitworth. During the 2017 offseason he was a free agent after playing for 11 seasons with the Bengals, where Mike Zimmer once was the team’s longtime defensive coordinator. It’s believed the Vikings and their head coach were among the courters for Whitworth, trying to patch up a still to this day leaky offensive line. Whitworth, 37, is a force on the Rams offensive line and a high character guy.
The NFL had a 29 percent decrease in reported player concussions during the 2018 regular season, according to the January 25 issue of USA Today.
Augsburg hockey forward Alex Rodriguez is having a news making senior season while leading the MIAC in goals. Among the nation’s top Division III goal scorers, the Miami transplant has three hat tricks this season and is featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section of the early February issue.
Dick Jonckowski has ordered another 500 copies to be printed of his book, It’s All About Me, Dick Jonckowski: A Minnesota Treasure. The Shakopee-based emcee and public address announcer originally had 1,500 copies printed. Jonckowski autographed 200 copies of the book at a Twins event last week at Target Field.