Peer Pressure

The Gophers look good for '99. Unfortunately, so does the rest of the Big Ten.

For followers of Gopher basketball, the 1999 Big Ten conference race is laden with delectable uncertainty. No fewer than half a dozen of the league's 11 squads are legitimate contenders to finish with the best 16-game record during the regular season, and two or three others are long-shot threats to pull a series of upsets and win the Big Ten tournament. This competitive parity is no mere jumble of mediocrities, either: Six of the nation's top-25-ranked teams are from the Big Ten, and the conference has been so successful in interleague play that only Illinois and Michigan would seem to have no chance of landing a berth in the NCAA tournament.

With an intriguing mix of formidable strengths and obvious flaws, Minnesota is a key component in the Big Ten championship puzzle. The Gophers have a superb coach, a couple of pressure-tempered senior leaders, and an extraordinarily gifted 7-footer on their roster. They also sport a plethora of lop-sided role-players and are relying on untested freshmen and sophomores for the two most important positions on the court. A 12-4 record and a first- or second-place finish in the conference is not out of the question--but neither is sixth or seventh place. Whatever the outcome, the next two months should exceed the Gophers' (and the Big Ten's) lusty quota of floor burns and last-minute thrillers.

Any discussion of Gopher basketball necessarily begins with coach Clem Haskins, who during his 13 years at Minnesota has fashioned a perennially competitive program based on obedient kids playing dogged defense. Throughout his 18-year coaching career, Haskins has been a courtly, disciplined man who improved on his craft by dint of hard work and attention to detail. But after he picked up the NCAA Coach of the Year Award en route to the Final Four in 1997, his coaching took a quantum leap. This may be the result of his extracurricular involvement coaching various Olympic and Goodwill Games teams. More likely, it stems from a deepened sense of confidence and contentment after his national validation by the media and his peers.

Gone is the overcoaching of just a few years back, when Haskins's substitution patterns seemed to sacrifice his players' rhythmic teamwork for the sake of obtaining better individual match-ups. Now when the coach shuffles his lineup, it's obvious that he's either grooming his bench players for specific roles, giving his starters a breather, or responding to a weakness he he has detected on the court. And he's less apt to yank a player out of the game immediately after a major gaffe.

Gone too--or at least greatly diminished--is Haskins's penchant for martyrdom, which reached its nadir with his screed against talk-radio commentators three years ago. Although still prone to occasional bouts of self-righteousness, the coach is less paranoid and more secure and revealing in his dealings with the media. In a similar vein, Haskins used to sound so gleefully avid to assume the blame for his team's troubles that the sentiment seemed to lack conviction. Yet last week, in his admission that he had robbed guard Terrance Simmons of his confidence by pushing him too hard to be a starter, there was enough truth, brevity, and compassion both to take the pressure off Simmons and to confer an extra measure of class on Clem.

And finally, gone is Haskins's insistence on stodgy offensive sets, where six perimeter passes still often yielded little more than a low-percentage jump shot. The coach's more free-wheeling approach is born, in part, of necessity: The majority of the Gophers' current starting five can't be trusted to convert high-percentage jumpers, and are more adept at scoring in transition off the fast break. But part of the change is simply Haskins letting himself get jiggy with his half-court offense--witness his call for an improbably successful three-point bomb by backup center Kyle Sanden that put the Gophers ahead with just seconds to play in an eventual overtime loss to Cincinnati December 16.

 

More than anything, however, Haskins' forte as a coach is in how thoroughly he can instill the fundamental tenets of the game into his players. Not coincidentally, the backbone of this year's Minnesota team consists of two senior forwards who have labored under Haskins for three-and-a-half years--Quincy Lewis and Miles Tarver.

You don't need to know much about basketball to appreciate Lewis's value to the team. A silky-smooth performer at small forward, the 6-foot-7 Lewis is either too tall or too quick for most opposing defenders--he's equally comfortable converting short jumpers down near the basket or sinking three-pointers out on the perimeter. Thoughtful and levelheaded, he has thrived in his role as a team leader this year. His speed and wing span make him a solid defensive player, he currently averages nearly seven rebounds per game, and his extensive postseason tournament experience prevents him from getting flustered under pressure. This fall, he is almost sure to become the fourth Minnesota player in the past three years to be taken in the first round of the pro basketball draft.

Miles Tarver is not nearly so gifted. Tarver's awkward, errant jump shot provides nearly as much comic relief as his whimsical postgame interviews. Too often, he will commit a turnover by throwing the ball where he thinks a teammate should be going. But no matter. The Big Ten has always been an especially physical conference, where the enlightened use of elbows and backsides and the ability to grab rebounds are precious commodities. This year, most of the league's top contenders boast tough, skillful players at the power-forward position, including Purdue's Brian Cardinal, Michigan State's Antonio Smith, and Iowa's Jesse Settles. Minnesota will counter with Tarver, a tenacious rebounder and defensive anchor thoroughly versed in the intricacies of Haskins's system.

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