Just Happy To Be Here

David Kern

Growth. This season it's Coach Clem Haskins's favorite topic. Take a critical shot at his struggling, undersized club and he'll volley back a paralyzing stare and a clipped cliché. But ask the 1997 NCAA Coach of the Year to talk about how far his team has traveled in 1998 and he'll fill your notebook. "This year is as enjoyable as last year's trip to the Final Four," Haskins gushed before last week's hard-fought loss at Purdue. "Our players have really played up to their potential. And as a coach, I can't ask for more than that."

In other words, don't hold your breath for Cinderella to don a maroon and gold slipper at this weekend's inaugural Big Ten Tournament. Fans have already seen this year's team play at "110 percent," and it's not good enough for a surprise appearance on Selection Sunday, when the NCAA Tournament bids are announced. It is, however, worthy of Haskins's adoration. In his estimation, this year should be accepted as a down payment, seed money to invest on Monticello native Joel Pryzbilla, the homegrown McDonald's All-American who promises to give the '98-'99 Gophers an intimidating presence in the lane.

To the public, if not to his players, Haskins's happy face obscures the problem spots that, even with Pryzbilla, could wreak havoc on his team next season. Since being benched for speaking out of turn, for instance, junior Miles Tarver has regressed. Instead of playing with the confidence he exhibited in the preseason, the forward is pulling punches--reluctant to take shots, slow to go up strong after rebounds, and prone to the kinds of costly, mental errors that marked his first two seasons. It's as if Haskins wiped out Tarver's brain when he ordered him to shut his mouth.

Fellow junior Quincy Lewis has also been a disappointment. He's playing better D, but is less likely to drive and less mobile without the ball. Junior-college transfer Kevin Clark, whom Haskins calls "the most improved player" on this year's squad, is still too young for his age. Against Penn State, for example, the junior guard single-handedly came up with a miraculous save, then gave away the ball on an ill-advised drive. He scored a three-pointer, then blew a costly defensive assignment. If he were a freshman, this inconsistency would be par for the course. But Clark only has one year left and, without seniors Eric Harris and Sam Jacobson, will have to carry a load he's yet to shoulder for an entire game.

There are some heartening success stories further down on Haskins's bench, however. Freshman Kevin Nathaniel is beginning to play Harris-like defense on the perimeter; Antoine Broxsie is learning the term "big man" is as much about beef as it is experience; and Kyle Sanden, along with at least one of the Stanford twins, is getting quality playing time.

Of course, the coach's "don't worry, be happy" rhetoric is an annual staple, and if you remove the onus of building for the future and view this team's ratio of grit versus talent, then Haskins has reason to be proud. Game to game, the Gopher starters have produced enough points to stay close, and the bench has fought and fouled its heart out on D. There's even a Rudy-like figure to distract attention from the occasional blowout or squeaky victory over the dregs of the conference. It doesn't matter that senior Rob Shoenrock--who graduated from water boy this year to help plug the holes left in the middle by Courtney James--can't score, or do much else, really: He plays fearlessly against the conference's biggest guns and gives Haskins another excuse to stress guts over glory. Shoenrock also gives his team the little-engine-that-could persona this year's fans have embraced almost unquestionably.

A couple thousand of those fans will travel to Chicago's United Center this weekend. Drawing on the Gophers' two close losses to powerhouse Purdue for sustenance, they envision victories against lowly Northwestern and overconfident Big Ten champs Michigan State, landing their team in the tournament semi-final. Of course this is not totally out of the question, especially given the Big Ten's recent mediocrity at neutral sites. But even Jacobson, master of the worn, winning anecdote, seems to know what the future holds. "It's a long shot. But we aren't going to go out and get intimidated," he says. "If we lose, we lose. We should keep our heads high."

Jacobson's right. They should keep their heads high. If they manage to win a game or two, however, they won't be able to. They'll be too tired. Depth, or lack thereof (also a favorite topic of Haskins), will be the Gophers' undoing. No matter how you cut it, this team doesn't have the muscle mass to clean out the lane nor enough experience to maintain a pressing defense--inevitably the legs weaken and their stamina evaporates. Mismatches lead to foul trouble, and foul trouble leads to unwanted substitutions, a formula that leads in turn to a lack of point production in the stretch.

In this sense, both loses to Purdue, which represent this team's best collective effort, are allegorical. With four players in double figures, Broxsie blocking shots, an efficient offense yielding only nine turnovers, and not one but two comebacks, the Gophers still couldn't hang on last Wednesday. Purdue waited until Minnesota's box-and-one zone got wobbly and struck, nailing shots from the perimeter in the last four minutes. If the Gophers make it past the first round this weekend, they'll face the same scenario, only earlier, in their second game. Haskins, who has done a masterful job of playing his bench this season, will run out of reliable options. The energy-expending man-to-man defense will default by exhaustion into a zone, and even that will eventually crack under pressure, leaving the team once again wanting for the size of James and the off-the-bench scoring lift the also-departed Charles Thomas used to provide.

For even that to happen, however, Minnesota will have to triumph in their rematch with Northwestern. Last Saturday, after the Gophers hung on to beat the Wildcats by five in their final home game of the season, neither Haskins nor Northwestern coach Kevin O'Neill had much to say about tomorrow's first-round tournament encounter. Haskins was characteristically vague, O'Neill cavalier. "If anything, it'll be a little easier," O'Neill said. "Since the scouting's already been done, I can go recruit for two and a half days." Haskins did make it clear he'd stick to the strategy that evened the Gopher's season series with the Wildcats. He'll use every healthy body to keep towering center Evan Eschmeyer "off the block" and smother their shallow, struggling cadre of guards so they can't get him the ball. The only other worry is freshman three-point shooter Sean Wink, who Clark and Nathaniel held to nine points.

To keep Northwestern comfortably out of range, though, Haskins has to have a player rotation that is 10 people deep, keep his key performers out of foul trouble, and count on an at least average offensive production from Jacobson, Harris, and Clark. By the end of last Saturday's game, both Haskins and Jacobson admitted their team was worn out. In this game-a-day tournament setting, the Wildcats are bad news; even when you beat them, they make you pay past the buzzer (Haskins gave his team Sunday off). And if Minnesota does surmount Northwestern, they'll face Big Ten champs Michigan State. The Spartans are already guaranteed an NCAA bid and may not be motivated to win three games in a row, but with fresh legs they'll manhandle the Gophers' big men and torment Minnesota's trio of tired scorers.

Still, with a victory over Northwestern and a typically hard-fought loss to Michigan State, Haskins can continue to keep the tough questions about next year at bay for a few months and praise his overachieving club. In short, there's another moral victory waiting in Chi-town.

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