Why Minnesota Will Finally Win Their First NCAA Tournament Game Since 1990

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Following the article on Bucknell‘s Mike Muscala, who happens to be a Minnesota native and whose nickname is “Moose,” I thought to dig into the rich lore that is Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball.

Is this finally the year Minnesota will get to the dance and get their first win since 1990?

They’re in a 22-year drought without a win in the NCAA Tournament, which is pretty remarkable–a Big Ten school with a proud tradition in basketball without a win in March Madness since 1990 is just that: madness. In fact, they’ve only been there four times since 1990 and haven’t been higher than a seventh seed. Their overall record in the NCAA Tourney sits at 7-9 in eight total trips.

They’ve had some great players over the years play in the City of Lakes–former first overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft Mychal Thompson, former third overall pick and Celtics star Kevin McHale, former sixth overall pick Trent Tucker, former fourth overall pick Lou Hudson–you get the picture. All these players, however, wore the maroon and gold prior to 1990. The star on that 1989-90 team that won three games in the NCAA Tournament? Willie Burton. Yeah, exactly–who? Who is irrelevant but facts are facts, Burton was the last superstar to lead the Golden Gophers to a win in March.

Can this year’s team, currently ranked No. 18 in the country, finally get it done? You bet.

Head coach Tubby Smith has them believing. They’ve already beaten three ranked teams–No. 19 Memphis, No. 18 Michigan State and No. 12 Illinois–by an average of 13 points. They’ve also lost to three ranked teams, all ranked No. 5 at the time, by an average of 11 points. So there is still work to be done, but they’re certainly capable of winning a few games come March. Here’s why.

Offensive Rebounding. The Golden Gophers are animals on the offensive glass, averaging 15.6 offensive rebounds per game, second in Division I. They’ve had as many as 26 in a game (a win against Lafayette) and as few as seven in a win at Illinois. They’re led by fifth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe‘s 3.4 per game and senior Rodney Williams‘ 2.4 per game. Offensive boards lead to easy put-backs and extended possessions, both good for the Gophers.

Defense. Simply put, they play solid defense every single time they take the floor. They are top-25 in blocks (6.2) and steals (9) per game and allow opponents to shoot only 39.9 percent from the floor. Once again, Mbakwe is their anchor down low, blocking 1.8 shots per game. They’ve been a rock on defense all year despite the ebb and flow of their offense in Big Ten play. They ratchet it up when they need though and have held teams under 60 points in 12 of 22 games and allow only 61.4 ppg overall.

Offensive Efficiency. Once again, Minnesota is one of the best in Division I in offensive efficiency–points per 100 possessions–with 112.7, good for 13th in the country–which has helped lead to their 73.2 ppg. Their top five scorers all average better than 9.5 ppg and four of the five shoot at least 44.1 percent from the floor. Their leading scorer, sophomore Andre Hollins, is also their top assist man, with 3.7 per game. They’re also not afraid to share the ball–they’re averaging 16.1 assists per game as a team, good for 18th in the nation.

There are no egos playing for Tubby Smith, just hard-nosed players who play grind-it-out basketball. They’ve got a nice balance of senior leadership (Mbakwe, Williams) to go along with talented youth (Hollins, Joe Coleman) and they’ve meshed as the season has gone on, showing all sorts of resiliency as well, thanks in large part to the seniors.

They raced out to a 4-0 start then got throttled by No. 5 Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis before rattling off 11 more wins, including three in the Big Ten. Then they hit the skids–four straight losses to drop them to 3-4 in conference. Since then, they’ve won two straight and sit alone in 6th-place in a league that could get as many as seven teams in the tourney. They’ve got a big one tomorrow at No. 12 Michigan State, which will be a true litmus test to see where they’re at and where they need to be.

There’s no reason why the Golden Gophers can’t end their drought and win a game–or two or three–in the NCAA Tournament. After all, Tubby Smith does know a thing or two about winning games in March.

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