Although apathy characterizes the attitude of many fans toward Gophers women’s basketball, there is anticipation and curiosity about the team that begins play in the Big Ten Tournament tomorrow night as the No. 6 seed.
Coach Pam Borton’s team finished 8-8 during the regular season, the program’s best showing since 2009 and the last year Minnesota was invited to the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers won six of their final eight league games, and a win over No. 11 seed Wisconsin tomorrow evening would almost certainly guarantee an NCAA invite. Minnesota is 19-11 overall and may qualify for the NCAA Tournament even if the Gophers can’t win a game in the conference tourney in Indianapolis.
But Borton and her team need to build momentum in the program by not only winning a couple of NCAA tourney games this month, but also earn major success in the future with plus-.500 Big Ten records. The program has faltered since the glory days of 2003, 2004 and 2005 when Minnesota played in the Sweet 16 twice and Final Four once. The Gophers were 6th in the conference standings this season, certainly an improvement over the previous four years of 11th, 9th and two 8th place finishes.
The Gophers averaged 9,800 fans per game in 2003-2004, and 9,200 and 8,329 the following seasons, ranking in the top five or six nationally for women’s college basketball attendance. The last three seasons the Gophers have averaged 2,835, 3,277 and 3,178 fans per game.
The Gophers can do better on the court and at the box office than the results of more recent seasons. The program has the potential to be a revenue producer for the athletic department and no doubt athletic director Norwood Teague wants to see home attendance more comparable with Big Ten leaders like Purdue and Michigan State who averaged 8,031 and 7,145 fans per game this season.
Teague’s reputation is that of a basketball authority. He hired nationally respected Shaka Smart as men’s coach at VCU. Last year he dismissed Tubby Smith as Gophers men’s coach and hired Richard Pitino who has impressed with his teaching skills while working with minimal talent compared to the Big Ten’s best teams.
Teague also hired Beth Goetz last year as his department’s senior women’s administrator. Before coming to the Gophers, Goetz was at Butler where she earned praise from Bulldogs’ renowned head basketball coach Brad Stevens. Her responsibilities at Minnesota include women’s basketball and it seems likely she will play a key role in evaluating Borton after this season.
Borton has been Minnesota’s head coach since 2002. The athletic department invested significantly in her despite struggles on the court and large financial losses with the program. (Example: a May 4, 2013 Star Tribune story reported a 2011-2012 “deficit of almost $2 million.”) Borton has received over $400,000 annually since the 2008-2009 season and at that time was in the top one-third of the Big Ten’s best paid women’s coaches. Her contract extends through the 2016 season.
Among the positives Goetz could mention in an evaluation of the coach are two of Borton’s best recruits ever, junior guard Rachel Banham who led the Big Ten in scoring at 23.3 points per game and freshman center Amanda Zahui B., the conference’s top rebounder at 11.5 per game. Both players were chosen all-Big Ten first team by the media. The media and coaches chose Zahui B. as Freshman of the Year.
If Banham and Zahui B. could lead the Gophers to a couple of wins in the Big Ten tournament and two more in the NCAA, the momentum going into next season will be noticeable and that apathy bandwagon would have fewer passengers.
The Timberwolves, 30-29, wouldn’t earn a spot in the NBA Western Conference playoffs if the season ended now but Minnesota can’t be counted out. Starting tonight at Target Center against the Knicks (21-40), the Wolves face six opponents in the next seven games with records at least a half dozen wins under .500. Six of the games are at home for the Wolves who have a realistic chance to earn the eighth and final playoff spot before the season ends on April 16.
Another opportunity awaits later this month when the club has games at Dallas and Memphis, and home against Phoenix. The Mavericks, Grizzlies, Suns and Warriors are the teams most immediately ahead of the Wolves in playoff positioning.
The possibility of the Wolves earning a playoff spot this year and next is expected to have a lot to do with whether All-Star forward Kevin Love opts out of his contract in the 2015 offseason. In his five previous seasons in Minneapolis the team has yet to make the playoffs. Winning is something Love knew at UCLA and as a pro with the 2012 gold medal U.S. Olympic team.
Although the lure of playing for a better team (perhaps in a warm weather climate) is worth worrying about, Love could decide to stay here if the Wolves become a legitimate top 10 NBA team with more promise ahead. He might not find another point guard who sets him up better for open shots than Ricky Rubio. Also, don’t discount the relationship between Love and Flip Saunders, the team’s president of basketball operations who has made it a priority to develop rapport with the 25-year-old superstar.
Former Vikings coach Bud Grant will speak at the March 13 CORES luncheon at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Bloomington. Grant, who was one of the Gophers greatest athletes ever and played two seasons for the Minneapolis Lakers, coached 11 championship teams with the Vikings. Grant, who turns 87 on May 20, will have copies of his book, I Did It My Way, on sale at the luncheon. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans. Reservations (by March 10) for the lunch and program can be made by contacting email@example.com.
Grant’s buddy Sid Hartman, the Star Tribune columnist and WCCO Radio personality, will be 94 on March 15.
Defensive end Everson Griffen never won a starting job with the Vikings but figures to create some stir as a free agent because of his strong pass rushing skills.
No doubt former Gophers offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, now the OC with the NFL’s Jags, has to be anticipating Jacksonville taking one of the top college quarterbacks with the No. 3 selection in the NFL Draft’s first round.
Former Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, in his first spring training camp with the Rockies, is hitless in two at bats.
Baseball America’s top 10 Twins prospects (in order) are Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer, Kohl Stewart, Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, Lewis Thorpe, Trevor May, Danny Santana and Jorge Polanco. Five of those prospects are pitchers including Thorpe who is among the least familiar names to some Twins fans. Thorpe, 18 and from Australia, signed with the Twins as an undrafted free agent last July. He led the Gulf Coast League in strikeouts with 64 in 44 innings pitched, starting eight games, relieving in four and compiling a 4-1 record with a 2.05 ERA.
FOX Sports 1, the nation’s new sports channel trying to rival ESPN, makes its major league baseball programming debut April 5 with a doubleheader that includes the Twins at Indians game. The other telecast will be the Giants at the Dodgers.
Former Vikings safety Darren Sharper, who faces multiple rape charges, has been fired by the NFL Network.
St. Olaf men’s basketball coach Dan Kosmoski, a former Gophers assistant, made his 20th season memorable. The Oles are MIAC playoff champs for the first time in school history and advance to the NCAA Division III Tournament where they play Central College (Iowa) on Friday in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. St. Thomas, the team that lost to St. Olaf last weekend in the title playoff game, is also in the NCAA Tournament with a game on Friday against Augustana (Illinois) in Whitewater, Wisconsin.
St. Olaf’s Sam Daly and St. Thomas’ Courtney Pahl have won with the MIAC Elite 22 Award for men’s and women’s basketball. The elite 22 awards program recognizes MIAC athletes in various sports for high academic and athletic achievement. Daly, a senior with a 3.65 GPA, has a double-major in chemistry and psychology. Pahl, a sophomore with a 4.0 GPA, has a double-major in biochemistry and biology.
Jerry Kill needs Mitch Leidner to be the best quarterback he’s coached with the Gophers.
If the Gophers, who open spring practice tomorrow, are to improve their inconsistent offense then Leidner will be expected to be the leader. In three previous seasons at Minnesota, Kill hasn’t had a quarterback seize the job—either because of injuries or performance.
Last year Leidner and the now departed Philip Nelson competed for the starting position and both struggled with passing. Leidner threw for only 61.9 yards per game and three touchdowns, while Nelson’s numbers were 108.8 and nine. Leidner, who started and played less than Nelson, threw only one interception in 10 games while Nelson had six in 12.
Leidner, the only quarterback on the 2014 roster with Big Ten experience, is the team’s No. 1 quarterback now but will be pushed for the job if he falters. Behind him is redshirt freshman Chris Streveler and true freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy.
The best storyline for Leidner and the Gophers is his career eventually will invite comparison with Jordan Lynch who became an All-American and also Heisman Trophy candidate at Northern Illinois. Kill recruited Lynch when he was the Huskies coach and mostly kept him on the bench as the former Chicago prep quarterback learned the ways of major college football.
Leidner, like Lynch, was redshirted and both are physical runners. Leidner, who sometimes is more likely to welcome contact than avoid it, was Minnesota’s second leading rusher last season with 407 yards and tied David Cobb for a team high seven rushing touchdowns.
At Northern Illinois Lynch had to wait for an opportunity until Chandler Harnish moved on to the pros. His patience paid off with outstanding seasons in 2012 and 2013 including rushing totals each year approaching 2,000 yards.
Nelson wasn’t willing to stay at Minnesota, instead transferring to Rutgers. He is part of a long list of college quarterbacks who chose to leave their teams after last season. Kill had one quarterback transfer on him at Northern Illinois, plus Nelson here.
“We don’t live in a patient world—period,” Kill said.
But Leidner, the former Lakeville South quarterback, was willing to be patient at Minnesota and this spring and next fall he can prove the opportunity to be the Gophers No. 1 QB was worth the wait for him and the coaches. He doesn’t have to be Lynch. Just performing like the best Gophers quarterback in years will be more than enough as Minnesota tries to better last year’s 8-5 record, the best so far of the Kill era.
The Gophers will have six football practices between now and March 13. Then March 25 they resume workouts with the first of eight practices before the Spring Game at TCF Bank Stadium on April 12.
Kill said on WCCO Radio yesterday morning tight end Alex Bisch, center Brian Bobek, center Jon Christenson and defensive back Derrick Wells will be held out of spring practice.
Frank Lenti, who coached Lynch at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, will be one of the speakers at the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Clinic March 27-29. The clinic, at the DoubleTree Hotel in St. Louis Park, will also include high school coaches from Florida, Michigan and Texas. For a complete list of speakers and session topics visit the MFCA website.
The Gophers have pro day today at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. Former Gophers expected to work out for NFL teams are Jeremy Baltazar, Jake Filkins, Ra’Shede Hageman, Aaron Hill, Roland Johnson, James Manuel, Martez Shabazz and Brock Vereen.
Ex-Gophers quarterback and Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy and his wife Lauren will speak about leadership and ministry at the Uncommon Award Dinner March 21 at Bearparth Golf & Country Club in Eden Prairie to benefit Athletes in Action. The Uncommon Award will be presented to CBS NFL analyst James Brown. More information is available by contacting Paul Olson, firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Vikings season ticket holders go through the new stadium preview center they will likely have the same reaction as media who toured the facility last week. Impressive! The interactive center, located in the Metrodome Square Building overlooking the stadium construction site, provides fans a gameday feel including views of how the field will look from their seats. The 7,500 square foot center, the largest ever built by an NFL club, also offers visual experiences of the locker room, suites and stadium exterior.
For the first year or so only season ticket holders will be able to visit the preview center. A couple dozen fans per day will take the 45 minute interactive tour of the stadium that is scheduled to open in July of 2016. After the tour, while at the preview center, season ticket holders can make commitments for their seat locations.
The tour is free, of course, but watching the Vikings in the new facility won’t be. There will be personal seat licenses varying in cost from $500 to $9,500. Most suites will be in the $100,000 range per season with the most expensive at $500,000.
Gophers leading scorer Andre Hollins said he isn’t sure but thinks former teammate Wally Ellenson, who left the team last month, may eventually transfer to another school where he can play basketball. This winter Ellenson is high jumping for the Gophers track team after winning a gold medal last year in the Pan American Junior Championships.
Hollins, who dates Gophers women’s leading scorer Rachel Banham, said his teammate, Mo Walker, is dating Kionna Kellogg who used to play with Banham and the Gophers.
In the March 3 issue of Sports Illustrated, writer Michael Farber included the Wild’s Mikael Granlund (Finland) on his all-tournament hockey team for the Winter Olympics. Granlund was the left wing on the six-man team and a key contributor to Finland winning bronze medals.
If Charles Buggs’ teammates and head coach are correct, the Gophers redshirt freshman forward has a lot of productive moments ahead in his Big Ten career.
Buggs, who had only played in six games all season while scoring five total points, stunned an appreciative Williams Arena audience on Tuesday night by coming off the bench in the first half to make four of five field goal attempts. He finished the game converting five of six shots, scoring 13 points and was the team’s fourth leading scorer despite playing only 19 minutes in Minnesota’s 95-89 win over Iowa.
The performance that had the crowd roaring with approval didn’t surprise junior guard Andre Hollins, Minnesota’s leading scorer this season. “He’s athletic as hell,” Hollins said. “There’s just tons of upside.”
“Buggs is a talented player,” senior guard Malik Smith said. “One of the most talented players in the league if he just gets his mind right. Gets confident, he will be good for a long time.”
Among the most talented players in the Big Ten Conference? Smith believes Buggs has talent that ranks among the 10 best in the league. “He is one of the most athletic guys I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been around this game for a long time. I am 23 years old. He’s a super athlete. If he continues to work…he will be great.”
Gophers coach Richard Pitino is impressed, too. He said his inexperienced forward has the “best potential” of anyone on the team.
Buggs is a late developer and that’s why he was redshirted for the 2012-13 season. He has played in only seven games for a total of 40 minutes during 2013-2014. He averaged a modest 11.4 points per game as a senior for Martin High School in Arlington, Texas. Buggs’ build, 6-9 but only about 210 pounds, isn’t imposing either.
“His body is a little bit too thin but he’s continued to gain weight throughout the season,” Hollins said. “They’ve (the staff) been on him really tough about that. He’s been handling it well. He’s just been getting better.”
Buggs, who attended prep school for one year after high school, had to learn a new system under Pitino after being brought to Minnesota by former coach Tubby Smith. It’s taken time to learn what to do and play with confidence.
“He has confidence in practice but when he gets in the games he really doesn’t have a lot because he hasn’t been playing a lot,” Smith said. “With more playing time I think his confidence will build.”
Buggs played with energy and confidence on Tuesday night. That energy makes him popular with teammates off the court.
Hollins enjoys watching Buggs dance at a University residence hall. “You put on music and he’ll start dancing,” Hollins said.
Despite having large feet, Buggs is adept at dancing. “He makes it work,” said Hollins who believes his teammate might be good enough for TV’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
Buggs, who didn’t make himself available to media following his breakout performance Tuesday night, will probably be needed if the Gophers are to play competitively with first place Michigan tomorrow evening in Ann Arbor. Minnesota, with two regular season conference games remaining, has a 7-9 record and an upset over the first place Wolverines, 12-3, would be a big step toward an NCAA Tournament invitation next month.
Pitino doesn’t talk about tournament ambitions. He did, however, laud his team’s improved focus and energy in the upset win over nationally ranked Iowa, now 8-6 in Big Ten games.
The coach will take more of the same from Buggs and his other players.