Tyus Jones and his Duke teammates will try to win the South Region of the NCAA Tournament this weekend and advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis. It will be fitting if the Blue Devils freshman point guard from Apple Valley High School returns to Indy where several years ago as an eighth grader he was inspired by the Final Four.
Al Nuness, the former Gophers basketball captain, took Tyus and his grade school age brother Tre to Indianapolis in 2010 when Duke won the national championship in a field that included Butler, Michigan State and West Virginia. As a Jostens executive, Nuness had to be in Indianapolis for the Final Four, so he drove his young cousins, the Jones boys, to see college basketball played on its biggest stage.
The weekend had a lasting impact. “I think that (experience) solidified what he (Tyus) wanted to do,” Nuness told Sports Headliners. “He sat there as a student of the game. They both did (Tyus and Tre). We went to practices and they wouldn’t leave.”
At the time it was Tre—this winter a freshman starting point guard for Apple Valley—who was a big Duke fan. Tyus? He was all in for Michigan State. Ironically, the Spartans could be part of the Final Four field when the teams start playing on April 4 in Indianapolis.
Nuness won’t travel to Houston for this Friday night’s South Region Sweet 16 game between Duke and Utah, but if the Blue Devils win that game and the regional title on Sunday, he will head for Indy to see Tyus play. Nuness, though, knows March Madness is unpredictable and is concerned about Duke’s lack of depth behind star freshman center Jahlil Okafor. “He goes down, they got nothing,” Nuness said.
The NCAA Tournament’s one-and-done format seems like the best of places for Tyus who in both high school and college has shown exceptional poise and ability to make clutch plays when needed. “That’s a gift and there are few that have that kind of gift,” Nuness said. “His gift is the game slows down for him. He sees the game at a different pace than the normal person sees the game. He’s not exceptionally quick. He’s not exceptionally fast, but he’s on point with decisions and passes.”
Nuness’ memories of the trip to Indianapolis in 2010 included his surprise about the many college coaches that knew of Tyus. He and the boys were at a shopping mall when a Michigan State assistant coach told Tyus the Spartans wouldn’t worry about winning if they had a guard like him.
“I said, ‘These guys all know you’?” Nuness recalled.
Back then Tyus was attracting attention as an outstanding AAU player and eventually became a McDonald’s prep All-American at Apple Valley High School. And in Indy that year he and Tre got noticed for their shooting skills. At a convention where Nuness had business there was a shooting contest that attracted participants including college-age kids. Tyus won the contest and Tre finished second.
For first place Tyus won uniforms for his Apple Valley team. “It was an unbelievable trip for those guys (Tyus and Tre),” Nuness said.
It was pretty memorable for Nuness, too, who ended up securing the national championship ring order from Duke for Jostens. Nuness and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knew each other as high school players in the Chicago area. When Krzyzewski learned Jostens wanted him to buy rings from the Minnesota-based company, he had a message for Nuness: come see him at Duke.
Nuness did exactly that and it didn’t take long for the legendary Blue Devils coach to good-naturedly go after him. The two men had played together on an all-star team in the 1960s. “You never passed the ball at all,” Krzyzewski said.
Nuness laughed in recalling the accusation and, of course, denied it. But there’s no denying he would love to join Tyus, Coach K and the rest of the Blue Devils in Indianapolis next week.
Kevin Garnett played his first game this season for the Timberwolves on February 25 in a Target Center win over the Wizards. Since then Garnett has been in and out of the lineup to rest his 38-year-old body and bothersome knee. His last game was March 7. The Wolves record since February 27 is 3-11 and it’s evident Garnett’s presence on the roster hasn’t changed the losing ways of the Wolves who are 16-54 for the season which ends on April 15.
The Vikings have the No. 11 first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft to be held in Chicago April 30-May 2. Fans can hope the Vikings are fortunate enough to find a player who develops like a couple of the more famous all-time No. 11 selections. That list includes NFL Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The Gophers football team, off from spring practices since March 12, resumed workouts yesterday. The Gophers practice tomorrow starting at 4:15 p.m. and Saturday at 9:50 a.m. Both sessions are at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex and open to the public.
Last weekend’s WCHA Final Five attendance at the Xcel Energy Center was up 34.8 percent from the previous year when the two-day tournament was held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Total attendance was 15,048 compared with 11,162 in 2014. Minnesota State won the WCHA Final Five and is in the NCAA Tournament’s 16-team field with fellow league member Michigan Tech.
Brad Frost, who Sunday coached the Gophers women’s hockey team to a third national championship in four years, has made a career of coaching women. The Bethel graduate and native of Ontario started his career as an assistant girls hockey coach at Eagan High School from 1996-1999. Then he was a men’s assistant coach at his alma mater from 1999-2000 before becoming a Gophers women’s assistant in 2001 and taking over as interim head coach in 2007.
When athletic director Joel Maturi was looking to permanently fill the head hockey coaching position he worked diligently at searching for candidates of both genders. At the search’s end in 2008 he decided the best candidate was a person already on staff, Frost. “His success speaks for itself,” Maturi told Sports Headliners this week.
Maturi said Frost relates effectively to his players and can “push the envelope” when needed. He has the respect of the young women who are on the team. Frost is likeable too and relates well with others including media and boosters. “His humility comes through,” Maturi said. “He’s not a big ego guy.”
Women’s teams in town have achieved championship success including Frost’s Gophers and the two-time WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. The Gophers swimming and diving team recently won a fourth straight Big Ten championship. Former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak offered this Facebook post earlier in the week:
Be it hockey or basketball/
Or even swimmin/
When Minnesotans want a title/
We turn to the women
Gophers’ football fans with long memories might be a little concerned about whether Carter Coughlin will keep his verbal commitment to play for coach Jerry Kill.
The fans most worried will recall that in 2004 James Laurinaitis changed his mind about Minnesota and accepted a scholarship to play for Ohio State. Laurinaitis was a junior linebacker for Wayzata High School and a Rivals three-star recruit who gave a verbal commitment to the Gophers in early 2004 before he flipped that decision in December. Coughlin is a junior linebacker at Eden Prairie High School and Rivals.com ranks him as a three-star prospect.
Laurinaitis became a rare three-time college All-American and is the most decorated linebacker in Buckeyes history. He played on four Big Ten championship teams, with OSU winning two outright and sharing two others. He was the kind of home state defensive force the Gophers needed from 2005-2008 when they slogged their way through a cumulative conference record of 10 wins and 22 losses.
Laurinaitis was recruited by Ohio State assistant coach Luke Fickell. The Buckeyes co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach also recruited Coughlin and made a very favorable impression on him.
But this looks like payback time for Gophers fans because Coughlin insists his college decision is final even though Ohio State was tempting. “I am set in Maroon and Gold,” Coughlin told Sports Headliners. “There’s no question.”
Ohio State is college football’s defending national champ and will be a heavy favorite to repeat next year. What if the Buckeyes keep calling Coughlin and the Gophers have a bad season? “I am going to help build the program brick by brick,” Coughlin said. “I am completely invested in Minnesota and that’s my final decision.”
Coughlin, who could be the state’s top prep football recruit next fall, admitted it was “50-50” between Minnesota and Ohio State before he decided on the Gophers and announced his decision March 12. His mom, Jennie Coughlin, said her son “really had not let on yet” the big news was coming that Thursday.
That same day Carter had long distance phone work to do. “He was real close to coach Fickell,” Jennie said. “That was a tough phone call for him to make. …It was pretty emotional for him. He said it was probably the hardest thing he’s ever had to do…to tell coach Fick what his situation was.”
Coughlin is personable and admits to being a “people pleaser” so the call to the Buckeyes coach was understandably difficult. But when he went to Minnesota’s campus and told the coaches there of his decision he saw smiles on their faces and it removed the “pain” he was feeling about Fickell.
“I can’t even explain how excited I am about this (Gophers) coaching staff,” Coughlin said. “Looking at what coach Kill has done with every single program that he’s had—every single program just keeps getting better and better. Minnesota has gotten so much better in the past couple years and it’s just going to keep continuing to grow.”
Last fall Kill led the Gophers to a 5-3 record in the Big Ten, the first time Minnesota has been over .500 in conference games since 2003. In Kill’s first two seasons his overall record was 9-16 but in the last two it is 16-10. Minnesotans, including the Coughlin family, are impressed.
“He has tremendous respect for the man,” Jennie said. “It’s exciting to see what’s happening with the Minnesota Gophers and how much they’re growing and building, and he wants to be a part of that. I think it’s been his dream as a young boy to play for the Gophers. Dream come true, really.”
Coughlin, who said his decision to choose Minnesota was his and not the family’s, has deep Gopher roots. His grandfather, Tom Moe, was a starting end for Minnesota in the late 1950s. Although he built a law career in Minneapolis, Moe also served as the Gophers athletic director after an academic fraud scandal hit the basketball program in 1998. Jennie played No. 1 singles and doubles for the Gophers women’s tennis team and her husband, Bob Coughlin, was a starting defensive lineman on the U football team.
Carter acknowledged he values family and it was a major factor in thinking about his college choice. “That’s one of the most important things in my life, and I’d say that was a big thing at the end (of the decision making process) for me.”
Schools can’t talk about high school players until they sign National Letters of Intent as seniors but if the Gophers coaches could discuss Coughlin publicly they no doubt would rave about him. The first attribute out of the mouth of Kill or linebackers coach Mike Sherels would likely be speed. (Sherels also made a big impression on Coughlin during recruiting).
Coughlin has been timed at 4.44 in the 40-yard dash, and that’s moving for a high school linebacker, or even a running back. He is almost 6-foot-4 and plans to increase his weight from 205 to 220 for his senior season at Eden Prairie where the Eagles are defending state 6A champions.
Many prep prospects don’t finalize college choices 11 months before they can sign National Letters of Intent like Coughlin, but he wanted to make the decision and focus on high school including another state championship. “It also allows me to be able to recruit other kids in the state—and out of the state—and try to keep building up the 2016 group,” he said.
Sounds like Coughlin—who will be a business major and describes the Carlson School of Management as “incredible”—is sold on Minnesota.
Minnesotans who hate the Big Ten Conference for forming a hockey league a couple of years ago with six teams—including the Gophers—could see their collective blood pressures soar again this weekend.
The Gophers are on the spot today in the Big Ten Tournament in Detroit against Ohio State. A loss likely eliminates Minnesota from selection for the NCAA Tournament, a postseason party the Gophers have attended the last three years.
If the Gophers win today (3:30 p.m. CDT start, Big Ten Network) they advance to the Big Ten Tournament championship game on Saturday. Minnesota coach Don Lucia said earlier this week on his 1500 ESPN Radio Show his team has less than a 10 percent chance of being selected for the NCAA Tournament on Sunday if the Gophers lose to the Buckeyes. Minnesota won three of four games against OSU during the regular season.
The Big Ten Tournament title game on Saturday starts at 7 p.m. and will also be on BTN. The winner receives automatic entry into the NCAA Tournament.
But will the NCAA Selection Committee still call the Gophers’ name if Minnesota loses on Saturday? The Gophers won the regular season Big Ten championship with a 12-5-3 record but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Gophers were once the No. 1 ranked team in college hockey, later fell out of the top 20 and now are No. 13 in the USCHO.com national poll. No other Big Ten team is even ranked in the top 20, an indication of the six-team hockey league’s lack of strength this year. And while the Gophers were the best in their league, the nonconference record was a not so impressive 9-7.
No doubt (cue the blood pressure tests) the overall weak performance of the Big Ten as a hockey league this season hurts. “When the whole league is down it affects all the teams trying to qualify for a playoff position,” said Lou Nanne, the former Gopher and passionate fan. “Whenever you’re in that situation you have very few teams make it PairWise (see below).”
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee uses “mathematical and other criteria” to determine 10 of the 16 teams for the tourney, according to USCHO.com. Six other schools are automatic qualifiers as conference champions. USCHO.com explains on its website that the selection committee compares teams against each other and then puts them in order based on comparisons won. USCHO uses a process called PairWise rankings which it says ranks teams similar to what the selection committee does because of the same data. The PairWise rankings on USCHO.com indicate, as of now, the Gophers would be invited to the tourney if they lose on Saturday.
Fans grumble about missing the old days when the Gophers were members of the WCHA, a powerhouse hockey league with Minnesota rivals like North Dakota and UMD. North Dakota, Michigan Tech, Denver and UMD are programs that once were WCHA rivals of the Gophers and this week are ranked No. 1, 4, 5 and 8 in the USCHO national poll.
Big Ten decision makers concluded awhile ago the conference should have a hockey league and a lot of that decision was driven by the Big Ten Network’s need for programming. The Gophers have won the first two regular season championships in the new league, but that won’t be perfect consolation if they miss out on the NCAA Tournament.
Nanne said leagues have good and bad years. In the long run he isn’t concerned about Big Ten hockey competing with the country’s best leagues. What he is upset about, though, is this season’s Gopher TV schedule that had the team playing on so many different channels and days and times it became frustrating for him and other fans. “Anybody tells you this doesn’t hurt Minnesota hockey, they’re nuts,” he said.
What happens with the Gophers’ TV schedule is the Big Ten Network is the rightsholder and has first call on games. Then the ESPN family of networks including ESPN2, ESPN News and ESPNU can pick and choose. And Gophers games can also end up on Fox Sports North. Regardless of network, games aren’t just televised on traditional Friday and Saturday nights anymore. TV dictates that some games are on other days and aren’t always played in the evening. The good news was 31 of the team’s 36 games have been televised—the best coverage of a college hockey team in the country.
Nanne does worry about fan interest in the Gophers program. “I just want more teams (in the Big Ten),” he said. “I think we gotta get to eight teams somehow. I think that will drive more interest.”
For now, though, the Gophers are on a two-day, two opponents Big Ten schedule.
The WCHA Final Five tonight matches (first game) No. 2 seed Michigan Tech against No. 3 Bowling Green, followed by No. 1 seed Minnesota State playing No. 4 Ferris State at Xcel Energy Center. The tournament features three of the nation’s top 10 teams, according to both the USCHO. com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls, with No. 2 Minnesota State, No. 4 Michigan Tech and No. 9 Bowling Green. The fourth team competing for the Broadmoor Trophy and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament is Ferris State, a preseason top 10 team that is 7-1-1 in its last nine games.
Minnesota State, Michigan Tech and Bowling Green give the WCHA an NCAA-best (tied with Hockey East) three of the nation’s top 10 winning percentages . The Mavericks are tied for the best at .777 (27-7-3), the Huskies (tops nationally with 28 wins) are third at .763 (28-8-2) and the Falcons are seventh at .671 (23-10-5).
Also taking place locally is the men’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Target Center where No. 1 ranked North Dakota plays No. 18 St. Cloud State tonight followed by the No. 5 Denver against No. 6 Miami game. Those conference tournament games are scheduled to start at 4:08 and 7:38 p.m. Minneapolis time.
Tickets are sold out at Ridder Arena, official capacity 3,400, for the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four that starts today on the University of Minnesota campus. Despite the sellout status the first 100 students to show their college IDs at the Ridder Arena box office for both the semifinal session and championship game will receive complimentary tickets. Questions should be directed to the Gopher Sales & Service Department at 612-624-8080 (option 2).
Minnesota, the No. 1 tournament seed, plays No. 4 Wisconsin starting at 5 p.m. today. The Gophers, 32-3-4, are trying to win their third national title in four years. The other Frozen Four teams are Boston College and Harvard, No. 3 and 4 seeds. The national championship game is at Ridder on Sunday starting at 3 p.m.
The Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award honoring the best female college hockey player in the country will be announced tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. at the McNamara Alumni Center on the Minnesota campus. The Gophers Hannah Brandt, along with Alex Carpenter from Boston College and Marie-Philip Poulin of Boston University, are the three finalists.
Marlene Stollings achieved a personal best head coaching win total with the Gophers’ 23-9 record in her first season at Minnesota. In two previous head coaching assignments (two seasons at VCU and one at Winthrop) Stollings didn’t win more than 22 games in a season, nor did her teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Her Gophers are in the NCAA Tourney for the first time in six years. They are the No. 8 seed in the Oklahoma City Region and play No. 9 seed DePaul starting at 4 p.m. today in South Bend. Brittany Hrynko leads the Blue Demons with a 19.6 points-per-game average. The senior is a finalist for the Dawn Staley Award, given to the nation’s top guard.
Lynn Holleran, director of the McNamara Academic Center for student-athletes at the University of Minnesota, starts her new position later this month at Penn State as senior associate athletic director for administration. Holleran’s partner is former Gophers women’s basketball coach Pam Borton. The two were married last year.
Hamline’s Cinderella men’s hockey team hopes to keep “dancing” tomorrow when the Pipers (14-10-4) travel to UW-Stevens Point for an NCAA Tournament quarterfinal game starting at 7 p.m. The winner plays at Ridder Arena March 27 as part of the semifinals leading to the national title game on March 28 at the Gophers’ arena. This is only the second time in school history Hamline has advanced to the NCAA men’s hockey tourney and follows a 2-22-1 season last year.