Enjoy a Friday notes column with information on football, basketball, hockey, media and wrestling newsmakers.
Third-year Golden Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck expects his offensive line to be among the better ones in the Big Ten next fall. Offensive line performance has often been an issue in the program’s recent past and Minnesota hasn’t had a center, guard or tackle chosen in the NFL Draft for 13 years.
The enthusiastic Fleck said the Gophers, who begin spring practice next Tuesday, could have “incredible line play in the making.” Minnesota has several offensive linemen with starting experience returning from a 7-6 team that closed the year winning two of its last three regular season games, and then won a bowl game by the largest margin in program history.
Fleck believes a top offensive line is “the name of the game” in the Big Ten Conference. He knows programs that win at a high level consistently have offensive lines that excel and produce top players.
“It’s a very, very physical conference,” Fleck said. “It’s a long season. It’s nine conference games. …It is a battle every single week, especially up front. If you can have bigger, stronger, more athletic, smarter (linemen), and you continue to develop that every single year, I think you’re going to have a lot of success.”
Fleck’s returnees include Connor Olson, a starting guard who could move to center and replace Jared Weyler who was a senior last fall. Fleck said it’s also not clear yet whether Blaise Andries, another starter last season, will end up at tackle or guard.
Fleck couldn’t talk about his offensive line without quickly discussing a tight end roster that is loaded with big bodies who are counted on to complement the blocking of the center, guards and tackles. The tight end group includes 6-foot-4 Jake Paulson, a starter last season, who has bulked up from 245 pounds to 270.
Minnesota has eight returning starters on offense and the competition at some positions will be intense. The running back roster, for example, will be one of the better such units in the country with returnees Shannon Brooks, Mohamed Ibrahim, Rodney Smith and Bryce Williams. Fleck said the foursome have already accounted for “6,500 yards and 52 touchdowns” during their careers at Minnesota.
“I would call that a lot of productivity coming back in the running back position,” the coach added.
Minnesota’s first practice open to the public will be March 15 starting at 4:45 p.m. The location has yet to be announced.
In Lindsay Whalen’s first season as Gopher women’s basketball coach, home attendance has increased from an average of 3,130 in 2017-18 to 5,738 in 2018-19. The regular season finale last Sunday against Michigan State had announced attendance of 7,707 and was the third largest home crowd of the season.
This has been a historical week in Minnesota for female play-by-play announcers on television, with Marney Gellner doing the Twins’ spring training game from Fort Myers Sunday, and Sloane Martin describing games Wednesday at the boys’ state high school hockey tournament in St. Paul. Never before in Minnesota have women done TV play-by-play for the Twins and the boys’ hockey tournament.
The Pioneer Press chose John Mayasich as the No. 1 all-time Minnesota prep hockey player in its recent series listing the 75 best ever. He had a great prep career at Eveleth High School and was a four-time All-American for the Gophers in 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955. The newspaper named South St. Paul’s Phil Housley No. 2.
Best guess to win the “sweepstakes” to get Rochester John Marshall basketball superstar Matthew Hurt is Duke and its legendary coach Mike Krzyzweski, who in past years has landed Minnesotans Gary Trent Jr., and brothers Tre and Tyus Jones.
The Gophers’ chances? Slim to none, according to those who have followed the recruiting of Hurt.
Coach Richard Pitino’s Minnesota men’s basketball team closes its regular season at No. 24 Maryland tonight, after upsetting No. 11 ranked Purdue Tuesday at Williams Arena. A Minnesota win will be the first time since 1993 (excluding vacated seasons) that a Gopher team has won back-to-back games against ranked opponents.
Among those in attendance at Tuesday’s game was 1952-53 All-American Gopher guard Charley Mencel. He also played for the NBA Minneapolis Lakers, and is among the Gopher greats whose jerseys are displayed in the Williams Arena rafters.
At No. 1 Gable Steveson, the Apple Valley freshman with a 27-0 record, is Minnesota’s highest seeded wrestler as the Gophers go into Saturday and Sunday’s Big Ten Championships at Williams Arena, but others, of course, will be counted on to contribute. “We have 10 guys who can go out and score points,” coach Brandon Eggum said.
Shortstops can be the best athletes on their teams, so maybe the Twins don’t face a logjam for eventual playing time with incumbent Jorge Polanco and valued minor league prospects Nick Gordon, Royce Lewis, and Wander Javier.
It wouldn’t be surprising if a Fortune 500 CEO is hired to replace retiring Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany in June of 2020.
Golden Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino made a couple of predictions after last night’s upset win over Purdue that Minnesotans will like.
The sixth-year coach believes the late season victory over No. 11 ranked Purdue should propel his team to an NCAA Tournament invitation. During a jubilant on-court postgame celebration at Williams Arena, he also told the crowd the jersey of senior forward and rebounder extraordinaire Jordan Murphy will one day hang in the building’s rafters with those of the program’s other greatest players.
“That jersey will be up there in no time,” Pitino said while speaking on a microphone to the fans.
The 73-69 win over Purdue was one of the most entertaining and important victories of the Pitino era. With “background noise” from critics about Pitino’s coaching future, the Gophers added to a resume that also includes impressive victories against the likes of Iowa, Washington and Wisconsin. They may have clinched a tournament invite in Dinkytown last evening.
Minnesota is 19-11 overall, 8-10 in Big Ten games. The Gophers finish the regular season Friday night at Maryland, and then join their other league rivals at the Big Ten Conference Tournament in Chicago next week. Minnesota’s NCAA Tourney chances look a lot less precarious after last night, with national bracketologists likely to forecast in coming days that the Gophers will be part of the 68-team field announced on Selection Sunday, March 17.
Pitino, whose career record in Big Ten regular season games is 40 wins and 69 losses, told the crowd he “can’t wait to be in the tournament.” If the “Big Dance” is Pitino’s destination for the second time in three years, he can begin writing thank you notes to Murphy and junior guard Amir Coffey.
Murphy ranks second all-time in career rebounds in the Big Ten (1,262), behind Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas (1,411). Earlier this week he was fifth nationally in rebounds per game with a Big Ten-best 11.7. He was second in the NCAA with 19 double-doubles and holds the Gopher career record with 65.
Murphy, a San Antonio native, was going to attend VCU but a coaching change had him reconsidering his options in the spring of 2015. The former Texas All-State player chose Minnesota and Pitino knew he had a potentially important player.
“I thought he’d have a good career,” Pitino told Sports Headliners before the game. “I didn’t think statistically he would do (all) this.”
Murphy has been an impact performer from his first season when he averaged 11.6 points and eight rebounds. A determined attitude has characterized his play from day one. “His mentality was phenomenal. He was ready to go right away,” Pitino said.
Last night Murphy moved into sixth place all-time on the Minnesota career scoring list. His low-post production is a signature part of his game that has led to his points total. Durability is also a big reason for his record setting play. “I don’t think he’s ever missed a practice,” Pitino said about his power forward who has played in every game during his career.
Murphy added another double-double last night with 13 points and 14 rebounds, while Coffey showed again why he is Minnesota’s leading scorer, most versatile player and a possible NBA draft choice later this year. The junior has joined Murphy as one of the Big Ten’s best players and last night his new found aggressive play resulted in 32 points and eight rebounds.
His passionate style, including slashing to the basket, helped earn him 18 free throw attempts. He and other Gophers took turns defending star Purdue guard and scorer Carsen Edwards, who made only seven of 31 field goal attempts.
On Senior Night emotions were high even during a pregame ceremony to honor Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, Matz Stockman and Brock Stull. Those emotions built from there during a game that Minnesota received help from all of its seniors including a not to be forgotten performance by Stockman, the 7-foot center who had been averaging 9.6 minutes per game and 2.7 points.
McBrayer had 10 points, and while Stull had only four points in 22 minutes, his all-around play in the guard rotation was solid. Stockman had the game of his Gopher life, including coming up with a steal that had him in the open court before being fouled. That was part of his impact on defense but even more impressive were seven blocked shots. He had a tension-busting dunk in the game, too, and finished with seven points in 24 minutes of heroic work in the absence of key reserve and center Eric Curry who as of this week is out for the season with a foot injury.
The student section teased Stockman with chants of “MVP! MVP!” The 24-year-old journeyman, who started his college career at Louisville after growing up in Norway, was also honored with the Gophers’ Heart of the Game award.
Who would have thought the team’s four senior players would all contribute so much to the win? “Their seniors played great,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.
A roaring and sometimes adoring crowd played a role in the win, too. It was Williams Arena magic reborn—and maybe influenced the officiating. The Gophers had 36 free throw attempts and made 27. The Boilermakers had 18 attempts and made good on just nine. “You get more calls when you’re at home,” Painter said with minimal emotion.
The emotion was mostly on Minnesota’s side last night.
Jim Dutcher has been impressed with the job Ryan Saunders has done since taking over as the Timberwolves head coach in early January. The Wolves have been playing less than .500 basketball under Saunders, but were struggling, too, prior to coach Tom Thibodeau being fired. “Any time you take over a program in the middle of the season, it’s not easy,” said Dutcher, who believes the players have responded well to Ryan’s coaching.
Ryan’s dad Flip played two seasons for Dutcher at the University of Minnesota, from 1975-1977. Flip, who passed away in 2015, later coached for Dutcher and the two built a close lifelong friendship.
The resemblances between father and son are evident to Dutcher, including facial expressions. “You just think of Flip when you see him (Ryan),” said Dutcher who coached the Golden Gophers to the 1982 Big Ten title with Flip as a young assistant.
Ryan hired Jerry Sichting as an assistant coach shortly after taking over the Wolves. Sichting had worked for Flip, and Dutcher said Ryan wanted to bring in the 62-year-old assistant to provide valuable counsel on and off the court.
Dutcher sees another connection between father and son. “He’s not afraid to try things,” Dutcher said of Ryan’s willingness to experiment with new lineups, substitutions and how he uses his bench.
Flip, who died at age 60, had a long history with owner Glen Taylor and the Timberwolves organization as president, coach and minority owner. Ryan, 32, was an assistant coach under his dad, and then under Flip’s successors including Thibodeau. The Saunders name is almost synonymous with the organization.
Dutcher said Ryan shouldn’t be judged by his age (he’s younger than dozens of NBA players) or lack of head coaching experience. Because of his experience with the Timberwolves, including this season’s team, Ryan knows the organization, owner and players. “I think he was as ready as anybody in that situation could be (to be named head coach),” Dutcher said.
While Ryan carries the interim tag as head coach now, that could change after the season as Taylor continues to make his evaluation. Certainly a surprise entry into the playoffs will help Saunders’ cause, but for that to happen the team must play more consistent defense than it has offered so far this season and go on a long winning streak.
Dutcher is even more specific about the defensive challenge awaiting Ryan when asked about the team’s big need for improvement. “Getting defensive stops when the game is on the line (fourth quarter),” Dutcher said.
The Timberwolves are 29-34 after last night’s 135-121 road loss to the Wizards, the team’s third loss in a row. That’s way too many points to give an opponent, particularly a struggling club like the Wizards.
“It’s hard to win on the road when you’re defensive intensity is not there and it hasn’t been there in these three games…,” Saunders said referring to the team’s three-game losing streak during his postgame news conference televised in Minneapolis by Fox Sports North.
Dutcher thinks the current Gophers men’s basketball team, 18-11 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten, may receive an NCAA Tournament invitation even if they don’t win their two remaining regular season games but do win their Big Ten Tournament opener. He said a victory tomorrow night at home against nationally-ranked and Big Ten leader Purdue will cinch an entry into the NCAA Tournament.
Former Golden Gophers coach Bill Fitch, who left Minnesota after the 1970 season for the NBA, is one of 13 finalists for induction later this year into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Fitch is among the winningest NBA coaches in league history with 944 victories, and his 1981 Boston Celtics won the league championship. In 1996 he was named one of the NBA’s Ten Best Coaches of All-Time.
Fitch coached five NBA teams starting with the Cavs in 1970 and ending with the Clippers in 1998. A former Marine, Fitch had high expectations for his players and teams that also included the Nets and Rockets.
Fitch coached collegiately for 12 years including at North Dakota where he led the team to two consecutive Division II Final Fours (1965 and 1966). He was Minnesota’s coach for just two years, but helped rebuild a program that won the 1972 Big Ten title.
The 2019 Hall of Fame Class will be announced at the Final Four in Minneapolis next month. Fitch is 84, retired and living in Texas.
The five finalists for the 2019 Mr. Basketball Award are Isaac Fink, Springfield; Matthew Hurt, Rochester John Marshall; Zeke Nnaji, Hopkins; Tyrell Terry, DeLaSalle; Tyler Wahl, Lakeville North. The winner will be announced March 26 at the Timberwolves-Clippers game at Target Center.
The Vikings have extended head coach Mike Zimmer’s contract through 2020, with no details about his compensation. In the past, Internet speculation has put his compensation at $4 million per year. It’s a decent bet Vikings ownership signed off this winter on a small increase on whatever he has been earning.
Zimmer is 47-32-1 in five seasons and his teams have two NFC North titles. He needs five more wins to tie Jerry Burns for third in most head coaching victories with the franchise.
Zimmer may need to win another division title and have success in the playoffs to receive another extension next year. New assistant head coach Gary Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl with the Broncos and presents a personality contrast to the very intense Zimmer, could emerge as a candidate if there is an opening for the head job.
Best wishes to former Gophers hockey coach Doug Woog as he faces health care challenges including Parkinson’s disease.
Ex-Gopher Blake Cashman produced some of the best results of any linebacker at the NFL Combine last week in Indianapolis. He tied for third among linebackers in the broad jump, was fourth in the 40-yard-dash and 20-yard shuttle, tied for fifth in the vertical jump and tied for seventh in the three-cone drill.
Darrell Thompson, the Gophers’ all-time career leading rusher, has built the youth mentoring Bolder Options organization into a much admired nonprofit. The 26th anniversary Bolder Options Gala is May 2 at the Minneapolis Event Centers (Riverside Ballroom).
The Minnesota United Major League Soccer club is the only organization in the league with a female head athletic trainer (Stacey Hardin), female TV color commentator (Kyndra de St. Aubin) and female director of operations (Angie Blaker).
The United won its regular season opener on Saturday against Vancouver, 3-2, and has four more road games before opening the home season and debuting new Allianz Field on April 13 against New York City FC.
Quoting former Gophers golfer, Minneapolis businessman, and motivational speaker Harvey Mackay in his syndicated column last week: “The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.”