Wednesday, January 1, 2014

0-for-Vegas, or: Aneurysms for Everyone! Gophers Men's Basketball in 2013

This is Part 1 of a 7-part look-back at what happened in Minnesota sports over the past 12 months. Some of these stories are obviously figments of my imagination. A couple actually happened. These are the tales, imageries, conversations, and visualizations that best described, at least for me, what it meant to be a Minnesota sports fan over the past 12 months.

“Bud Light Lime-a-Rita TALL BOYS. Shit will HIT YOU QUICK,” said Ron, in reference to the 8% alcohol-by-volume drink that was inexplicably lumped in with other pretender beverages in the “2-for-$10” cooler in a long hallway at the Tropicana. We both bought one for each hand and headed to the sports book because we knew that the best way to watch the maddening roller-coaster that was the under-utilized talent of the 2012-13 Gophers basketball team was with a steady dose of lime-flavored sugar-booze coursing through one’s bloodstream.

No one could predict which version of the Gophers squad would show up for any given game last season. The ground gained through early conference wins over Michigan State (By THIRTEEN?? That happened???) and Illinois were given back when abysmal first halves at Indiana and against Michigan led to narrow defeats. The Gophs would gut out a gritty win over ‘Sconsin in OT, then look completely hapless against a zone—really, ANY zone, all season—in a blowout loss at Iowa. They would knock off the team on the tippy-top of the AP rankings in an Indiana upset, then end the regular season with back-to-back losses to 15-18 Nebraska—a team who, no joke, gave the Stay-Puft marshmallow man rotation minutes last year—and 15-17 Purdue.

Selection Sunday came with the Gophers maintaining their spot as the Big Ten’s perpetual bubble boy, but the match-up seemed savory once their spot in the tournament had been announced as secure. Minnesota squeaked in as an 11-seed but were matched against a 6-seeded UCLA team that was embroiled in all kinds of turmoil and featured a coach in Ben Howland who, like the Gophers’ Tubby Smith, seemed close to being shown the door. Minnesota was the only 11-seed from a power conference, and they appeared to have drawn the most favorable match-up against a team that had had players quit, get hurt, and be Shabazz Muhammad during their season. So with a trip to Vegas for the tournament’s first weekend planned, might it be kind of fun to put some money down on the hometown team to spring an upset?

Memo to Shabazz's defender: He's going left.
Of course not. Ron, Tom and I had seen too many lackluster showings from this team over the past five months. The first bet I made when we started exploring sports books was Bruins over Gophers in their Friday night battle. Go ahead and call me a terrible fan, but admit it: If you saw the UCLA-Minnesota line after the match-up was announced, your first reaction was “…wait, we’re FAVORED??” Vegas thought a Minnesota win, after three straight humiliating losses to end the season, would not be an upset. I had to place some kind of bet on the game because duh, but I had to bet heavy against the Gophers because they were a terrible, boring, pick-n-roll-and-watch-Andre-try-to-do-everything-for-30-seconds-because-everyone’s-standing-still kind of team for large chunks of the season.

(By the way, UCLA’s 2-guard Jordan Adams is a future NBA star, but he broke his foot in the Pac-12 tourney and was out for the Gophers game. Shabazz Muhammad was available and healthy for UCLA, which, as we know now, is kind of like saying Chris Smith was available and healthy for the Knicks before being waived yesterday. More on Shabazz later in this series but here’s a preview: GAAAHH FLIP SAUNDERS AND I ARE SUCH IDIOTS.)

"I drafted WHO???" --Saunders on the night of June 27
Fast-forward to Friday night in Vegas. After the initial luster of being able to legally bet on sporting contests wore off, my pockets had considerably lightened as I went 0-for-my first 12 bets on the first day-and-a-half of tournament action. Some of them were sucker, pie-in-the-sky parlays and teasers, but some of them were heartbreakers. After a breakneck first half, the Kansas State-La Salle game slowed to a molasses pace in the second half, killing my over bet. Pittsburgh looked great according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced stats, so of course they lost by 18 to Wichita State (which, kudos to the Shockers, ended up being a Final Four team). An afternoon spent watching this madness unfold had the three of us in a “get drunk, stay drunk” mood by Friday night. Hence, the Lime-a-Ritas. 

We watched the Minnesota-UCLA game in the Tropicana sports book with our hearts cheering for the home team and our empty leather money-holding pouches rooting for the mess of a West Coast squad that opposed them. We all know what happened. The Gophers played well in the first half and took control early in the second behind one of the best combined nights for the Hollins boys in their tenure as Gophers. Austin had 16 points and went 4-6 from three, with 7 assists and 4 steals. Andre blew up for 28, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists. Muhammad led UCLA with 20 points on 6-18 shooting (HIGHLY INEFFICIENT, FLIP). The Gophers won by 20 in one of their best team performances of the year, and Ron, Tom, and I swore off sports betting until our next trip to Vegas AT THE VERY EARLIEST, and that was a hard-line stance.

Image courtesy of Sports Illustrated
I don’t remember much of the rest of that night outside of a desire to get “frugally drunk,” whatever the hell my mind thought that meant. 48 ounces of Lime-a-Rita and subsequent tequila shots (THANKS, TOM) (Seriously, thanks Tom) will do that to you.

Two days later, as I nursed away the last remnants of what I believe may have been a 60-hour hangover, the Gophers were soundly defeated by Florida and their season concluded. Shortly after that, and after their best result in the NCAA tournament since the redacted days of Clem Haskins, Tubby was given his walking papers.

As it turns out, Tubby Smith was the first, but not the last, Minnesota coach to personify a line from M. Ward’s “Requiem” in 2013; “He was a good man, and now he’s gone” could also describe the recently deposed Leslie Frazier, too. Tubby landed on his feet quickly, being snatched up by the Texas Tech Home for Nearly Retired Basketball Coaches just days after being fired by U of M athletic director Norwood Teague. Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams earned a little draft buzz, but both went unselected in the summertime. Mbakwe is currently playing for Virtus Roma in the Italian League, while Williams is a Delaware 87er and on the same D-League team as Kendall Marshall, T’Wolves pre-season cut Lorenzo Brown, and Reeves Nelson.

The Gophs hired Rick Pitino’s young son Richard from Florida International to take over, which ultimately meant all the work Tubby had put in trying to woo any of Minnesota’s bumper crop of 2014 high school prospects was for naught; Tyus Jones signed with Duke, Reid Travis deked out the Gophs by choosing Stanford on his signing day, and Rashad Vaughn transferred to famous scholarship feeder Findlay Prep (located in lovely Henderson but let’s be honest it’s essentially Las Vegas, NV) for his senior season, essentially guaranteeing that he’ll avoid his home state in his eventual decision.

Little Richard ain't worried. Courtesy of the Star Tribune.
Pitino has said all the right things since being hired and has seemed rather accessible and good-natured in his blog postings on the U of M website. Though it may take some time to woo top-notch recruits, Pitino’s hard-pressing style of play has been fun to watch so far in the 2013-14 season, and the players seem to share a palpable desire to play hard for all 40 minutes that never really existed during the reign of Tubby. The team is currently 11-2 after beating up on some low-major patsies; one of those losses was a game effort against the still-unbeaten Syracuse Orange out in Maui. They'll start conference play with a home game against the Mitch McGary-less Michigan Wolverines tomorrow night. It was a difficult decision for which the university was ridiculed in the national media, but as I wrote back in April, changing coaches was the right call. Which basically makes it the opposite of every call I tried to make in Vegas that March weekend.


Highlight: I’m pretty sure Mbakwe single-handedly ended talk of Cody Zeller’s top-3 draft pick potential when he dominated “The Big Handsome” (For f---‘s sake, ESPN.) in that Indiana upset. Mbakwe finished with 21 points, 12 boards, one completely dominated Zeller brother, and one stormed court.

Lowlight: The Gophs were 8-8 with two conference games remaining against two of the Big Ten’s worst teams in Nebraska and Purdue. Tubby had his first winning conference season—and perhaps a top-6 seed in the tournament—within reach. And then…in one four-day period in early March…ANEURYSMS FOR EVERYONE!

(Apologies to Andre Almeida and also Barb Hauri; Part 2 will feature the Wild and will be written some time in 2014. Like, by Friday, is the hope.)

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