March 18, 2010 at 8:54 a.m.
If you have even a slight interest in men's college basketball, you already know that fact. What you may not know, however, is that the Gophers are the luckiest team in American right now. This is a team that doesn't belong in the tournament, and wouldn't have been in it if not for some breaks along the way.
Pundits will argue the Gophers already had plenty of breaks go against them. Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe, two hotly-recruited players, never took the court this year due to legal problems. Mbakwe's assault case was a known problem when he was being recruited, and White had trouble written all over him before he ever committed to the Gophs. It's hard to feel sorry for them in those spots. Many may point to the departure of junior guard Al Nolen as a bad break for the team. While that may be the case, not ensuring one of your better players is up to snuff in his academia is something that can be traced back to the Gophers.
Is it Nolen's fault that he basically flunked out of his second semester scholarship? Yes, but the program as a whole should've been there to guide him out of his murky situation.
Those were the worst breaks against the 21-13 Gophers this year, and all could be attributed to partially the program itself.
Those are some tough breaks for a program, but not so much when you look at what actually went right for the Gophers this year.
Besides one quality non-conference win over Butler, six of the eight non-conference wins for the Gophs came against teams with losing records, and the other two came against patty cake teams Stephen F. Austin and Morgan State.
In their first big conference win of the year, the Gophers beat a then-struggling Ohio State team. They narrowly beat the Buckeyes, and that was despite one of the best shooting nights of the year for junior guard Blake Hoffarber. Hoffarber, who to be fair was recruited as a three-point specialist, made seven-of-nine three pointers that game, which is scorching hot even for the best three-point shooters. Ohio State had also just gotten superstar Evan Turner back from a literal broken back, there wasn't a much better time to play OSU at that point, and the Gophers still needed a hurricane of Hoffarber threes to win the game.
In subsequent Big 10 games, the Gophers were blown out by Purdue, battered by a streaking Ohio State team, slaughtered by the also-ran Michigan Wolverines (once by almost 30 points with their season nearly hanging in the balance) and inexplicably lost to the 10-win Indiana Hoosiers. They also got beat by Northwestern after enjoying a 13-point lead with only a few minutes remaining.
You can point to narrow losses to Michigan State as signs of progress, but in their second loss to the Spartans, MSU tried to do everything they could to give the game to the Gophers and lose, but the U of M wanted nothing to do with a win in that game.
The Gophers got lucky that they had Iowa scheduled last for their conference play. Who didn't bust out of a slump against the Hawkeyes this year? They were jockeying with Penn State all year to see who the worst of the Big 10 was.
In the first round of the Big 10 tourney, the Gophers drew walkover Penn State. Although the 11-win Nittany Lions had given the Gophers fits earlier in the year, they stepped by them without much trouble in the opening round.
Here's where the U's luck really kicked in. After averaging nearly 10 points a game through the regular season, Spartans' junior guard Chris Allen made a boneheaded move and violated team rules, keeping him off the court against the Gophers. The U took advantage and narrowly edged out the Allen-less Spartans in overtime.
In the semi-finals, the Gophers got a Purdue team sans conference player of the year Robbie Hummel. Hummel had torn his ACL in a game against the Gophers a few weeks prior. The injury switched the Boilermakers from a top five team to a team that could barely crack the top 25, and a streaking gophers team took advantage of it and won handily.
In the championship game, the Gophers who have popped their head out more often than not showed up, getting blown out of the water by nearly 30 points by Ohio State.
As glad as I was to see the Gophers in the field of 65, I could name four teams more deserving of the shot, I just hope this scrappy group can prove me wrong and send Xavier packing tomorrow morning.
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