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Gophers Hoops Schedule Needs a Fix

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December 4, 2013

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Despite an 8:30 p.m. tipoff, wintry weather and losses in two of their last three games, the Gophers attracted their second largest home crowd of the nonconference season last night against Florida State.  The announced attendance of 11,386 was no surprise because Florida State is by far the most attractive opponent on the early schedule.

The game was part of the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge and in alternate years that guarantees the Gophers will schedule a home nonconference game with more box office appeal than usual.  But for many years now the nonconference schedule has been filled with the likes of Bethune-Cookman, Chicago State and Coastal Carolina, with “highlight” games against schools from the Dakotas.

With Gophers season ticket holders paying some of the higher prices in the country to watch college basketball, the interest of patrons should count for more.  “Unfortunately it doesn’t but it should,” former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher told Sports Headliners.

This fall the Gophers haven’t been approaching sellouts in the 14,625 seat Williams Arena. Through Big Ten nonconference games as of last Sunday the Gophers had the third lowest average attendance in the 12-team league.  Minnesota’s 10,974 average was better than only Northwestern and Penn State.

Most major conference basketball teams, the Gophers included, schedule weaker opponents in November and December to build up their records hoping to later qualify for the NCAA Tournament.  That’s reality but Dutcher and others believe in a competitive sports market like Minneapolis there needs to be some balance in Minnesota’s schedule.

Dutcher’s teams played home and away games with Iowa State, Kansas State, Louisville and Marquette.  “We (also) played South Dakota State and North Dakota State, and some of those (teams), but we wanted to have some challenging home games.  Recently, with Minnesota, the only challenging home games they’ve had are those they had to play, the ACC challenge.”

In recent years the Gophers have faced a few of the marquee names in college basketball on neutral courts — Duke, Louisville, North Carolina and Syracuse. It might be difficult to bring a school like that to Minneapolis but the new Vikings dome could be alluring enough with a big payday and national TV audience to make that happen in 2016 or beyond.

More doable would be a home nonleague schedule anchored by at least two major conference opponents (excluding an ACC team) who have name recognition even if they aren’t among the absolute elites of college basketball.  An easy suggestion for part of the plan is to have either Iowa State or Marquette here every year.  Playing those neighboring schools at home and away would add a lot of energy to the nonconference schedule.

Dutcher fondly remembers in 1978 and 1980 when his team beat Louisville at Williams Arena and also in Louisville.  Playing big time schools excites fans and players.  “Your players love it,” Dutcher said.  “They want the challenge.  They don’t want to beat Mount Whoever, that’s no thrill.”

When Tubby Smith coached the Gophers he didn’t bring top box office teams to Minneapolis.  “You gotta decide if you’re trying to build a program or you’re trying to build a record,” Dutcher said.  “If you’re trying to build a record you schedule soft.  If you’re trying to build a program you accept some challenges.”

Last month came news the Gophers and Louisville are likely to play a game on an aircraft carrier next November.  Matching Richard Pitino against his dad Rick Pitino is something Gophers fans have been anticipating for awhile.  It’s just that the fan base hoped a game would land here.

Worth Noting

The largest nonconference attendance so far this season for the Gophers was for Pitino’s debut as coach, 12,957 on a Friday night last month against Lehigh.

Pitino impressed again last night with his coaching as a less talented Gophers team defeated Florida State 71-61.  The passionate coach threw his jacket off in the second half, then later whipped his tie off, too.

Weather and logistics have been concerns with past games played on aircraft carriers.  Dutcher said when San Diego State and Syracuse played last year it was so windy no three-point shots could be attempted.  “I think the shine is off those games,” Dutcher said. “That show has left town.”

Dutcher’s son Brian is head coach in waiting at San Diego State where he is associate head coach for the Aztecs.  Head coach Steve Fisher has led the Aztecs to a 97-0 record when leading with five minutes remaining in games.

Condolences to Twin Cities marketing authority Billy Robertson on the passing of his mother Gwen Robertson.  A celebration of her life will be held on Friday in St. Paul at Lumen Christi Catholic Church with visitation from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. and funeral service/mass from 10:30 to 11:15 a.m.

Jeff Jones, the Washburn four-star running back per Rivals.com, will make his official visit to the University of Minnesota Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  Jones, who has verbally committed to the Gophers, will be picked up on campus Sunday morning by Washburn coach Giovan Jenkins and the two will attend the Mr. Football Banquet later that day.

Jenkins said Jones has accepted an invitation to play in the prestigious January 2 Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando.  Jenkins is going to encourage Jones to finish all his official visits to schools before January 2 and Jones might announce his college choice at the Under Armour game.

Jones is one of 10 finalists for the Mr. Football award.  The 2013 winner will be announced on Sunday, December 8 at the DoubleTree Hotel in St. Louis Park.  Tickets are $15 and can be ordered on the MFCA website (click on MFCA ad on this page).  The banquet begins at noon.

There are multiple reasons the football Gophers look forward to playing in a bowl game including the social aspect.  Spending time at a bowl game site means arriving days in advance and having more opportunity than usual for players to be together.

“It’s like a big vacation, just having fun with your teammates,” Gophers cornerback Brock Vereen said.

That fun can include playing video games and dancing.  Asked about a favorite memory, Vereen said:

“Any of the locker room dance battles is definitely a highlight.  There’s been many.  Everybody on the team thinks they can dance but (defensive back) Jeremy Baltazar is definitely one of the best dancers on the team.  He just wings it.  I don’t think there is a name for some of the stuff he does.”

Quarterback Philip Nelson values the extra practices allowed as part of bowl game preparation.  “I think that’s where you make big strides as a team so I am really excited to get those extra 15 practices,” said Nelson.

The Gophers will hear about their bowl destination next week.  This week and next they concentrate on academics, strength training and conditioning.  The coaches will be on the road recruiting.

Local sports author and motivational speaker Ross Bernstein is scheduled for presentations in Australia, Singapore and South Africa.  Bernstein will be in Australia next month when the Australian Open is played.  He plans to spend time in Australia with Minnesota native and doubles star Eric Butorac.

The Twin Cities Dunkers breakfast group has a Dunkers Fund that assists the athletic departments at Minneapolis and St. Paul public high schools. Two years ago the fund awarded $32,500 to schools and this year over $70,000.  Assistance has included monies for uniforms and equipment.

St. Paul Pioneer Press sportswriter Bruce Brothers retired last Friday.  His assignments over the years included beat writer for the Wild.

Former Gophers and U.S. Olympic hockey trainer Gary Smith works for the Institute for Athletic Medicine.  His assignments include being the athletic trainer for Eden Prairie High School teams.

The Swarm, the local professional box lacrosse franchise that starts its 10th season in Rochester, New York on December 28, is partnering with Goldy’s Locker Room to sell merchandise and tickets at 10 locations.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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