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Friday, March 23, 2012

Gopher Gab: Mbakwe Granted Sixth Season



By Jason Rossow

Gopher Basketball news just keeps on getting better.

The NCAA has officially given Trevor Mbakwe a sixth season of eligibility, and it sounds like Mr. Mbakwe is planning on using the extra season to return to the Gophers!

In other news, former Hopkins star and Arizona State standout Trent Lockett said his mom is battling cancer and hopes to play closer to home next year. Lockett is set to graduate in the summer and could transfer to a different school and play immediately as he will have already graduated. Lockett is the best player on the Sun Devil’s team, scoring 13 points a game, and adding 6 rebounds and 2.2 assists. He hasn’t specifically mentioned any schools with his “close to home” statement, but the Gophers would have to look appealing for his last year of college. The problem would be that Minnesota is maxed on scholarships if Mbakwe returns, and unless someone left or had their scholarship taken away, Lockett would need to pay his own way to be on the team. Regardless of where he ends up, we wish him and his mother all the best.

IF the stars align, you could potentially see a line-up with Mbakwe, Williams, Lockett, and Austin and Andre Hollins. Not to mention a bench that includes Mo Walker, Elliot Eliason, Joe Coleman, Julian Welch, Andre Igram, Oto Osenieks, Maverick Ahanmisi and Chip Armelin. It would be the entire Final 4 team of this year’s NIT with the addition of one of the best players in the Big10 in Mbakwe, one of the best players in the PAC12 in Lockett, and Mo Walker (the 300-lb. giant in the middle). Oh, and you also add freshman Charles Buggs & Wayne Ellenson. This would likely be the most experienced team in the nation, with top 10-15 talent level.

Of course, this Gopher team does have the word "Minnesota" on their jerseys, so we can assume this won’t all work out as hoped. But it’s nice to dream for a day anyway.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gopher Gab: Making the Most out of the N.I.T.



By Jason Rossow

Is it better to “WIN” the NIT or lose in the first round of the NCAA’s? Well, I think that depends on the team. For this year’s Gopher squad, I believe that playing four or five NIT games will do more for the team than losing one game in the NCAA’s. 

There is not one senior Gopher who has played a single minute in the Big10 Tourney or NIT.  When the best player on the team (Trevor Mbakwe) went down in November, it pretty much eliminated the Gophers from being a legit threat in the Big10. Finishing 6-12 in the conference was actually better than I had expected after losing the beast down low.

Going to the NIT with a sixth seed and traveling east in the first round, I assumed that, like every other Tubby postseason, this was a one-and-done type of tournament. But the Gophers have made the most of their NIT experience, and I believe they're gaining momentum for the 2012-2013 season.

Four Gophers have stepped up their games this post season, and I feel good about the direction this team is headed for the first time since Mbakwe was playing. 

Rodney Williams, the freak with the 46" vertical, makes nightly appearances on ESPN's Top-10 with his sick dunking ability. Up until this season he was a very raw, and very unreliable.  However, this season he leads the team in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, and is probably second only to Blake Griffin in ESPN Top-10 plays. Including the quarterfinal loss to Michigan, Rodney has scored 20, 21, 21, and 24 respectively, while shooting a crazy 8-10, 9-17, 9-10 and 8-11!  Whoever said “the dunk is the highest percent shot in basketball" wasn’t dumb.

Andre Hollins has found his game, and I’m jacked for his future at Minnesota. Going into the Big10 tourney, Hollis was averaging a boring 5.0 points per game. Since the start of the Big10 Tourney, he’s gone for 25, 21, 13, 14 and 24. His 46 points in two Big10 Tourney games resulted in a selection to the All-Tourney Team. Just a freshman, Hollins has played like a senior the past six games. He has suddenly become the guy you want having the ball in crunch time, and is delivering like a legit star. His 92% free throw shooting is perfect for your main ball handler to ice games as he did last night.

Elliot Elliason has been forced into a ton of minutes. This season was supposed to see Sampson, Iverson, Mbakwe and Walker using up most of the post minutes. However, Sampson is now injured and hasn’t played the past five games, Mbakwe and Walker had season-long injuries and Iverson transferred after last season. Elliason has done a solid job holding the fort down and learning on the job. Last night he had his best game yet, delivering 12 points, 7 boards, 2 blocks, 2 steals and an assist. 

Andre Ingram probably should be playing for Winona State, but is suddenly the only post player the Gophers have on the bench. He logged a total of 60 minutes in the entire Big10 season, but has played 56 minutes the past five games. His hustle and defense are a big reason the Gophers are still playing.

The past five games, have been a good head start for next season, as this one was pretty much lost when Mbakwe went down. The Gophers beat a decent Northwestern team at the Big10 Tourney, and lost a close game to Big10 co-champion Michigan. Then, they went on the road and have won three straight in the NIT. Now, they get the chance to gain even more valuable experience going to New York City for the Not In Tournament (NIT) Final 4. Next year, IF Mbakwe is given another year of eligibility and Williams returns, this team should be a legit top-four team in the Big10 with the ability to compete with anyone. Austin Hollins has proven he’s a steady player, and Andre Hollins has star capacity. An improved Williams to go along with Mbakwe, and this team has the ingredients to be legit. Throw in Joe Coleman, who should only get better, and depth from Welch, Walker and Elliason, and hopefully Tubby has his first real contender at Minnesota. 

Now, with next year’s team, I’d rather take a one-and-done in the NCAA’s than see a veteran team in the NIT. But this season, I’ve found the NIT to be some of the most entertaining Gopher hoops I’ve seen all year. Which is both good and bad…

Monday, March 19, 2012

Gopher Gab


By Jason Rossow

For the first time since 2008, the evil empire of college hockey is going dancing. What Gopher team that shows up next weekend is anyone’s guess after what took place on Friday night.

The McNaughton Cup Champs (regular season WCHA title) were destroying their arch rival North Dakota in front of 17,000 strong at Xcel Center, outshooting the green guys 23-4, and outscoring them 3-0. Then, UND used a timeout with around five minutes to go in the 2nd period and the momentum switched, resulting in a 6-0 scoring route over the final 25 minutes.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it. UND went on to beat a worn out Denver squad on Saturday, claiming the postseason conference title for the third consecutive year and giving them the No. 1 seed in the Western Region of the NCAA’s.

Of course, the Western Region of the WCHA is being hosted BY Minnesota at the Xcel Center. The Gophers, now ranked 8th nationally in the Pairwise and No. 2 in the Western Region, take on No. 3 seed Boston Saturday night. The winner will play Sunday vs. the winner of the UND/Western Michigan. The winner of Sunday’s matchup earns a trip to the Frozen 4 in hockey mecca Tampa Bay (note the sarcasm). 

Year in and year out, Boston is one of the top teams in the nation, and will certainly test the Gophers. They are lead by captain Chris Connelly, a Senior from Duluth, MN. Their head coach, Jack Parker, has been in his role since 1973, and ranks 3rd all-time in NCAA hockey victories. The Gophers are a very young team, and in their first big-time atmosphere game of the season, were crushing the Sioux before suffering a Glen Mason-like meltdown. It leaves us Maroon & Gold faithful completely clueless as to which team will show up next weekend.  The hockey gods would certainly be hoping for a Gopher/UND rematch, which would be their sixth meeting of the year (Gophers lead just 3-2 after the debacle). In a regional niche sport like college hockey, a Gopher/Sioux game at the Xcel Center is about is good as it gets.  You’re lucky if you get that game once every five years, and this year they could do it back-to-back weekends (of course, they were the "Sioux" last weekend, and will now be nameless as no Sioux logo can be worn during the tournament.)

Don Lucia’s Gopher teams won National titles in 2002 and 2003. In 2004 lost they lost in the second round, and in 2005 they lost in the Frozen 4. Since 2005, the Gophers have been a non-factor in the NCAA’s. Having the No. 1 overall seed, they suffered the biggest upset in college hockey history in 2006 losing to Holy Cross. In 2007, they had a No. 1 seed and lost in the second round. In 2008, they got beat in a non-competitive game vs. Boston College, and have failed to qualify at all the past three years.Thankfully, the Gophers open up on Saturday night instead of Friday. They are just 6-9 in their past 15 Friday night games this year, and 15-3-1 on Saturdays.

IF Kent Patterson (WCHA Goalie of the year) plays well, and the Gophers of the first 35 minutes of last Friday show up, they will be the team to beat coming out of the Western Region. If any glimpses of the 3rd period Gophers show up this weekend, they will be sent packing pre-Frozen 4 for the seventh consecutive year, which AGAIN will put Don Lucia on the hot seat despite winning the WCHA this year.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Broken Bunch



Written by Ryan Boser, with assists from Joey Cavalier and Jason Rossow

Once upon a time, Ricky Rubio refused to come to Minnesota because the state was “too cold.” As I pen this article on a 70 degree day in early March, it’s become painfully clear that “too cursed” would have been a better descriptor.

Rubio’s first 41 NBA games not only represented hope for a moribund franchise, but also offered a reprieve to tortured Minnesota sports fans. His fresh face and magical talent momentarily distracted us from our fallen stars and gut-wrenching losses.

Now that a torn ACL has ended Rubio’s sensational rookie campaign, the reprieve is over—feel free to return to your regularly scheduled suffering.

Minnesota’s current string of catastrophic injuries has crippled each of the state’s five major sports teams, but the origin of the curse remains a mystery.

What did we do to deserve your wrath, almighty sports gods?

Gangelgate? When the NCAA neuralyzed the 1997 Final Four season I thought we were square.

The illegitimate Joe Smith dealings? Stripping a bad NBA team of five first round draft picks is the rough equivalent of eternal damnation, which already felt like a bit of an overreaction considering it was Joe freaking Smith.

Selling the North Stars was a self-imposed punishment, and getting in bed with the arch-nemesis earned us a Sexually Texted Disaster—no further sanctions were necessary.

At least the Twins have played by the rules. Sure, promoting Bill Smith to GM could be considered a crime against baseball, but didn’t you have (artificially) bigger fish to fry?

Clearly, I’m being satirical. I don’t believe in curses. Injuries are a part of sports, and no team is immune. However, what’s happening in Minnesota has blurred the line between bad luck and superstition. Between coincidence and conspiracy.

These haven’t been run-of-the-mill DL stints for replacement-level players, but instead debilitating injuries to the players who matter most.

We would have offered up Drew Butera as a sacrificial lamb, almighty sports gods. We’d have given you Tyrell Johnson if we could have found him, and you can keep the Metrodome. Hell, we’ll give you Darko right now. But please, for the love of all things holy, lift the bounty on our stars.

The following list outlines career-changing injuries to game-changing Minnesota athletes over the past two years. Enough is enough.


THE TWINS

Justin Morneau (concussions) – Since taking a fluke knee to the head on July 7, 2010, the 2006 MVP and four-time All-Star has been in a haze. Morneau has subsequently missed 177-of-246 games, due primarily to concussion symptoms. He’s recently acknowledged that he may be one setback away from retirement.

Joe Mauer (unknown) – Considering that he’s the face of Minnesota sports, it’s only fitting that Mauer’s 2011 season was cloaked in mystery. In addition to known knee and neck issues, the 2009 MVP missed 80 games due to cryptic ailments that ranged from a viral infection, to pneumonia to the infamous “bilateral leg weakness.” The organization’s veiled communications led to rampant speculation. While rumors of Lyme Disease and AIDS have been squashed, other theories continue to linger among skeptical fans despite Mauer’s relatively clean bill of health.

Denard Span (general fogginess) – Justin Morneau isn’t the only Twin who spent 2011 dazed and confused. Leadoff man Denard Span missed 92 games, battling dizzying symptoms related to concussions and Vestibular Neuritis. He’s already experiencing neck soreness in Spring Training, and the cumulative nature of concussions has cast a dark cloud over his future.

Kyle Gibson (Tommy John surgery) – As if raping the current lineup wasn’t enough, the sports gods decided to pillage the team’s future rotation as well. Top prospect and 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery last September, and considering the post-surgery results of Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan and Pat Neshek, Twins fans have every right to worry.


THE VIKINGS

Adrian Peterson (torn ACL and MCL) –
If we had one mulligan, we’d use it on Peterson, who tore both his ACL and MCL on December 24, 2011. The notion that he’ll be ready for Week 1 is delusional—with what we know about this injury, he’s unlikely to be back to full strength before the 2013 season. Considering that he turns 27 this month, and that his success is predicated on violent cuts and jarring collisions, the safe money is that his best days are behind him.

Antoine Winfield (broken clavicle) – Last year Antoine Winfield broke his clavicle in a 45-7 loss to the Packers, and managed to play just five games in his 12th NFL season. While he’s expected to be fully recovered by Week 1, it’s a dicey injury for a soon-to-be 35-year old who has built his career on lowering the shoulder.


THE WILD

Mikko Koivu (shoulder) –
Wild captain Mikko Koivu has now missed 24 games with two different shoulder injuries, and may eventually be shut down for the season.

Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (concussions) –
What a headache. Dating back to last season, both Wild forwards have missed significant action with recurring concussions. There’s a very realistic chance that each of their careers will be cut severely short.

Niklas Backstrom (groin) –
Considering the carnage, a four-week groin injury to the team’s top goaltender feels like a Swedish massage.


THE TIMBERWOLVES

Ricky Rubio (torn ACL) –
This was the most heartbreaking of all the injuries, as our dazzling 21-year old Spaniard was leading the Wolves’ playoff charge. These injuries aren’t what they used to be, and Rubio has a fair chance of returning to full strength by the beginning of next season. However, there are never any guarantees with torn ACLs.


THE GOPHERS

Trevor Mbakwe (torn ACL) –
Leading scorer and rebounder Trevor Mbakwe’s ACL tear essentially condemned the Gophers to the NIT. In a cruel twist of fate, the team’s senior captain and emotional leader had his reconstructive surgery on the same day as Adrian Peterson. There remains a small chance that the 23-year old will return for a sixth season.


THE DEPARTED

E.J. Henderson (fractured femur) –
In Week 13 of the bittersweet 2009 season, friendly fire (Jamarca Sanford) sent middle linebacker E.J. Henderson’s left leg flopping in all the wrong directions. Through investigative internetting, it appears that this injury (December 6, 2009) marks the inception of the curse. The rapidly declining 31-year old is unlikely to return to Minnesota. While he enjoyed a resurgent 2010 season, the metal rod in his leg will ultimately shave time off his career by hindering his speed and agility.

Sidney Rice (hip) and Cedric Griffin (torn ACL) – The 2009 NFC Title Game was the beginning of the end for promising youngsters Sidney Rice and Cedric Griffin. What is that, Gregg, about $2,000? Asshole.

Joe Nathan (Tommy John surgery) – The Twins’ lofty 2010 goals took a major blow when All-Star closer Joe Nathan tore his ulnar collateral ligament in Spring Training. To add insult to injury, the team would eventually trade Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps to shore up the bullpen (thanks again, Bill). Nathan returned and pitched poorly in 2011. He’s now a Texas Ranger.

Eric Decker (Lisfranc injury) – A lisfranc injury cut the superstar receiver’s Gopher career short, and caused his NFL draft stock to slip. After a nondescript rookie season in Denver, Decker scored nine touchdowns in 2011. Fortunately, he was able to leave the curse behind him when he left Minnsota—a suspected ACL tear this January was later downgraded to an MCL sprain.

Ranking Free Agent Targets



Searching for optimism on the heels of a 3-13 season isn’t easy, but I come bearing good news.

It can’t get any worse.

I’m of the belief that the team has finally bottomed out. In fact, I’m sure of it. The day was December 24, 2011. The team lost Adrian Peterson and the invaluable draft rights to Robert Griffin III in one afternoon, and I subsequently drank a gallon of spiked eggnog in under an hour.

While my downward spiral continues, the Vikings appear poised to begin the long journey back to playoff relevance, armed with the No. 3 pick in April’s draft and a middle class budget.


Click here to read the rest of the story at Bleacher Report.