Here is where I state the obvious...Minnesota sports are in a really bad place right now. Not just the University of Minnesota sports but the professional ones too.
- The Twins are the best thing going but they have meandered to a 5-11 start and are currently fighting for the worst record in baseball. Currently 24th in ESPN Power Poll, which was clearly not expected this year. Obviously it is very early in the season but even during their recent run of making the playoffs they quickly transform into a team that is not just incapable of winning but even putting up a fight against the Yankees. New York shows up to the games with bats, we bring pillows. Sure the Yankees are good but going 0 for their last 12 playoff games is embarrassing. To their credit they hit a home run (sorry for the baseball metaphor regarding a baseball team) with Target Field, that stadium is an amazing venue to watch what is generally a fun and competitive team.
- The Vikings tumbled from a Super Bowl caliber team in 2009 to being difficult to watch in 2010 and through no fault of their own may not even be playing games in 2011. They are breaking in a new coach, they do not appear to have any clue who will be their quarterback this year or down the road and they are completely botching their attempt at getting a new stadium approved. This is a Vikings town but this team is doing it's best to give up some of their sports market share.
- The Timberwolves...I don't even know where to be begin. Kevin Love is a good guy and a great guy to have on your roster and they have a few decent young guys that are fun to watch. But they don't have that much needed #1 guy and the one time they may finally get that first overall draft pick it is the worst collection of available talent in memory. This current assembly of talent plays no defense and turns the ball over way too much, this makes for ugly basketball and a lot of losses. The Kahn-Rambis administration do not appear to be any more competent than the previous country club regime that was dreadfully incompetent.
- The Wild are mired in mediocrity, fired their coach after just two seasons and their roster appears to maybe be good enough to get into the playoffs but it is a long way from being a serious competitor once they get there. No offense and it appears as though there is no real direction.
(don't get me wrong, I am a huge Minnesota sports rube. I love the Twins, Vikings, Wolves and even the Wild a little bit. But it is a sad sate of affairs right now for Minnesota sports and I'm just calling it like it is.)
Unfortunately Gopher football, basketball and hockey are not in any better shape. The gist of this post is not that we are poised to step into the limelight, but rather that the opportunity is there.
- Gopher Football is coming off a 3-9 season, they too are breaking in a new coach but his challenge is shaping this ship up and getting it heading in the right direction. Just upgrading the talent and getting the current roster to play better is only half the battle. The Big Ten has a number of very good teams and it is getting better with the addition of Nebraska. College football is much less cyclical then professional leagues and gaining a foothold to compete at the level of Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and even Iowa is no easy task. We'll get to more on Gopher football later.
- Gopher Basketball just capped off a promising season with an epic collapse that will not soon be forgotten. The luster of Tubby Smith's name is wearing off for some and the upcoming season is full of question marks especially regarding the team's guard play. Smith's back-to-back ranked recruiting classes of 2008 and 2009 brought in 10 players, only 3 remain. Three perimeter players are coming in that might energize the backcourt or may be more athletic kids who struggle to score in the Big Ten. Key returners could help anchor a good team or may see their minutes handed to hungrier kids. Like I said, a lot of question marks. In my opinion Trevor Mbakwe is a great player with a good story of working his way back from "trouble" and will be the team's go-to guy next year.
- Gopher Hockey lost a home series in the WCHA playoffs for the first time in school history. This team thought is always one year away from putting things together and making a run at a conference championship. There is talent on the roster, albeit usually young talent that leaves early. Don Lucia has been on the hotseat lately with his fourth consecutive season of not finishing any higher than 5th in the WCHA. This is a classic case of consistently underachieving and a fanbase that expects much more.
The point is that there is a very real opportunity for somebody to step up and grab the attention of the local sports fans and dominate the marketplace. And really this opportunity is two-fold. Not only are the rest of our local teams struggling but two of the main competitors of Gopher sports may not even be playing their next season. Next fall and winter it is very possible that the NFL and the NBA will both be sitting the season out because of some very real collective bargaining issues in both leagues. But who will be playing regardless of the financial battles being waged at the pro level? Your favorite rodent amateurs of course.
The Vikings are the team with the largest Minnesota market share, they could easily turn things around this season and bury Gopher football (again). But the NFL may not even be playing this year giving Jerry Kill a chance to establish himself and his new program as one that is on the upswing and worth watching. The beauty of it is that they don't even have to win a lot of games to grab the attention of the Minnesota sports fan. Minnesota fans will pay attention if this team is competitive, works hard and if they are disciplined team that is playing the right way. 1-11 won't be acceptable but we don't have to go 10-2 either. Winning the first three home games and then doing something like going on the road to beat Michigan would turn heads. Then of course remaining competitive the rest of the season and getting better is imperative, but it won't take a BCS Bowl bid to gain a foothold.
The early part of the season is crucial. There is a very real chance that the NFL will start late and then play an abbreviated season. The Twins also may take some of the spotlight with playoff games in October. But Gopher football may have their moment on stage, in the spotlight while very little else is going on for the first six weeks of the season.
This will be a different situation than competing with the Vikings. The winter sporting landscape in Minnesota isn't dominated by anybody. The problem here is that the winter scene is very crowded. The Wolves, Wild, Gopher hoops and to a lesser extent Gopher hockey are all capable of being the main story for a few months during the brutal winters. But over the last few years each team has gone out of it's way to stay out of that #1 spot in the winter. Nobody seems to want it and all are stuck somewhere between terrible and mediocre.
There is real opportunity here as well. The Timberwolves are terrible and even if Ricky Rubio is in uniform next year and even if the NBA is playing in November, they'll still be terrible. The Wild look to be taking another step back in the hopes that they'll eventually take a step forward. They finally lost their home sell out streak and apathy is setting in. Gopher hoops can really take over the winter headlines, but will they be positive headlines?
As stated above there are a lot of questions surrounding this team. We know that they'll be solid in the paint but beyond that we don't know a whole lot. In my opinion two things have to happen for this team to be the face of Minnesota winter sports. Two of the upper classmen absolutely have to improve. Ralph Sampson III and Rodney Williams are talented but they need to harness their talent, be more aggressive, be more consistent and be leaders on this team. Can they do it? Many believe that we've see what we are going to see with these two and any improvements are likely to be marginal, but I believe it is possible. Secondly the new guards have to be as good as advertised and Tubby needs to let them play. Getting improved play from the returning guards wont' be enough to compete in the Big Ten. Julian Welch, Joe Coleman and Andre Hollins need to be able to score, and defend, at this level immediately.
Unlike Gopher football, this is going to take wins from start to finish. And it is going to take a season without drama. Both of which I believe are possible but we all know that there are no guarantees with this squad
I'm not trying to make any bold predictions that in the near future Gopher football and Gopher basketball will be the two biggest shows in town. That is just crazy in a big market with a lot of sporting options. But for way too long the Gophers have been the minor league attraction in a big league town. The combination of labor issues and mediocre play from the big league teams makes for a perfect opportunity to reclaim some of the sports fan market share in the state.