March Memories 9: Goldy!

City Pages

Any fan of Big Ten basketball should be grateful for the 1996-1997 Minnesota Golden Gophers (yes, even this Wisconsin fan...we can always joke about this actually not happening, no banner, etc.).

Without their run, the Big Ten would've added a third consecutive season without a team making the Sweet 16. If the '97 Gophers didn't exist, the Big Ten, from '95-'97 would've been 6-16, with zero wins over higher-seeded teams and a couple 8 over 9 victories being the best that could be claimed. It was a sucky stretch of hoops, and those of you too young to remember don't realize how lucky you are.

In 1997 Iowa, Purdue, and Illinois all got out of the first round, so, counting Minnesota, the 4-2 opening round looks good (Wisconsin and Indiana were the two who lost in the first round). But it was fool's gold. Iowa and Purdue were both 8 seeds, and went out in the second round against 1-seeds Kentucky and Kansas, respectively.

Iowa* gave Kentucky a pretty good game for 35 minutes or so, but Kentucky put it away late, 75-69. Iowa PG Andre Woolridge, the first player to ever lead the Big Ten in scoring and assists in the same season, went out with 29 and 5, capping a great career in Iowa City (following a transfer from Nebraska).

*WHY Iowa was an 8-seed is an interesting question. Usually a power conference school that goes 21-9/12-6--and whose three non-conference losses included losses to Cal and Iowa State, both Sweet 16 teams--would have been treated better. Every year there are issues with what the committee does, but believe me, it's better lately than it ever has been.

But let's single out Illinois for a second. Earning a 6-seed, the Illini dispatched USC in the first round, and were then handed a huge break when 3-seed Georgia was knocked off by 14-seed Chattanooga. Do I even need to tell you what happened next?

Yes, dear reader, Illinois lost.

By double digits.

Adding insult to injury, Illinois's Sweet 16 opponent would have been 10-seed Providence. Again, though, the Big Ten mostly sucked during this period and, clearly, Illinois was no exception.

So, yeah, let's celebrate Gopher hoops! (It will be our last chance to do so.)

Because of how bad the league was, Minnesota rolled to a 16-2 conference record in the final season w/o a conference tournament (or, last season without a conference tournament being scheduled, I guess...f&*%!$ coronavirus).

They probably don't go 16-2 in most seasons, but they were a hell of a lot better than anybody else in the league in this three-year period. They had two different go-to players in Bobby Jackson and Sam Jacobson, but were also deep and varied. They had seven different players average 7 or more ppg, and could handle most any style of play.

Minnesota rolled through their first two opponents, Texas State and Temple [ed. note: sounds like a classic Gopher football non-conference schedule!]. But in the Sweet 16, they were handed a rematch against 4-seed Clemson Tigers, and it was a double-overtime classic. Minnesota jumped out early, leading by as many as 15 in the first half. However, Clemson closed it to 6 by halftime. Minnesota was cold to start the second half and Clemson grabbed the lead about halfway through, but Minnesota fought back and led by 6 with two minutes to go:

Jackson (36) and Jacobson (29) combined for 65 points, but the story in the OTs was all Bobby Jackson.

The nightcap of Midwest regional semifinals was also a classic. 6-seed Iowa State led 2-seed UCLA 46-30 early in the second half before UCLA mounted a charge. Let's pick it up in OT, UCLA leading 72-71, Iowa State's Kenny Pratt shooting his second FT. Let me know what you think of the refereeing...

In the regional final, Minnesota spotted UCLA a 10-pt lead early the second half before coming back and punching their ticket to the FInal Four 80-72. They didn't know it at the time, but Minnesota spared all of us 10,000 different Steve Lavin "back when I took UCLA to the Final Four stories," so I acknowledge the debt of gratitude.

The Gophers' run ended against Kentucky in the Final Four, in a pretty tough, ragged game. Neither team shot all that well, and Minnesota turned it over 26 times.

Elsewhere, it was a pretty good tournament. There were 6 different OT games, and eventual champ Arizona defeated three different 1-seeds on their way to the title (still the only team to do that), including overwhelming favorite Kansas (who entered the game 34-1) in the Sweet 16.

Arizona lived dangerously all tournament. They had to rally from 10 down with less than 5 minutes to go in the opening round against 13-seed South Alabama and saw 12-seed College of Charleston miss a game-tying shot in the closing seconds. Still, the craziest game in Arizona's run was their Elite 8 win over the aforementioned 10-seed, Providence (led by the immortal God Shammgod).

Let's pick it up with Arizona up 10 with 3:37 to play:

Somehow, beating North Carolina in the Final Four (and ending Dean Smith's coaching career) was the most anti-climactic game in Arizona's national title run.

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