I had the privilege of being 10-13 years old when the Greatest Show on Turf sprinted across the TWA Dome on a regular basis in St. Louis for four glorious years. The names roll of the tongue years later: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim, Ricky Proehl, on and on and on. And being 10, when the Rams went from worst to first in the blink of an eye, I thought it was always going to be this way. The Rams would always go to Super Bowls, they would always win, and they’d be the Greatest Show on Turf forever.
But Kurt Warner got hurt, it became evident that Mike Martz made a better offensive coordinator than he made a head coach, and the Patriots cheated. The St. Louis Rams not only never made it back to the mountain top, they started a string of 10 atrocious seasons the likes of which US professional sports has rarely seen and to top off the sundae of suck, Stan Kroenke dropped a turd of a cherry on top of the city of St. Louis and took off with the Rams for the glitz and glam of Los Angeles.
Looking back, I know now the naivety and wonderment of childhood can be fickle.
The point of this sob story is that I wish I could have shaken 10/11 year old me and said, “Enjoy this moment! Your team is playing exciting, fun football and you never know when this could be over!” I fondly remember a lot of the 1999 season but I also remember expecting more instead of enjoying the moment for what it was: a rare alignment of the sports’ fates creating a fantastic and wonderful season that contained some of my fondest childhood memories.
Which brings me to the point of this post:
Gopher fans, enjoy this 2016-2017 basketball season as it happens!
I have caught myself, on multiple occasions, looking forward to “next year” as it pertains to the roster of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. “EVERYONE’S (minus Springs) COMING BACK AND WE’RE GOING TO BE AMAZING!!!!!” Then, I shake myself, and realize that, one, we don’t know what will happen between now and then and two.... WE’RE ALREADY AMAZING!
Consider that last year at this time, on February 16th, 2016, the Gophers were 6-19, 0-13 in Big Ten play, and in the midst of 14-game losing streak. The program would soon by mired in bad off-court news in the form of a risque Twitter video and the season couldn’t end soon enough. A lot of people had lost all confidence in Coach Richard Pitino after seeing his conference win total decrease every year since the 2013-2014 season.
Well, I don’t recall many Division I major conference programs that have seen as drastic a turnaround in a single season that didn’t include a coaching change than what we are witnessing in Dinkytown this season. The Gophers stand at 19-7 overall, 7-6 in the Big Ten, and all their metrics are in spectacular shape. They’re 21st in RPI with a SOS of 16th in the nation. They’re 39th in KenPom with a SOS of 50th in the nation. And they already have four conference away victories, a commodity the Selection Committee deems as valuable as gold on Selection Sunday. The numbers are all spectacular and they continue to move up the bracket line amid a four-game conference winning streak, the likes of which Gopher fans haven’t seen since the 2010-2011 season.
Sure, we can always dream of more. It’d be nice to win a Big Ten championship and I’m not saying we shouldn’t set our sights on one of those in the near future. But we need to step back, look at this season, and realize that it is a rare gift. The 2016-2017 Gophers currently hold the 11th highest SRS in school history according to College Basketball Reference, which has records of the stat since the 1949-1950. So, by one metric, we are currently witnessing the 11th best Gopher team of the last 67 years.
Besides the fact that the team is of high quality statistically, they have been entertaining to watch as well. In 26 games so far this season, the Gophers have played in four overtime games. Out of the seven losses so far this season, only one was by double digits. Every conference game, outside the debacle that occurred in East Lansing, has been closely contested, for better or worse. While this may not be preferable to our hair and hearts physically, it has made for some fantastic college basketball-watching experiences. The game against Wisconsin was a heart-breaker but it was a well-played game by both sides that included late lead changes, clutch shooting, and a raucous home environment. It was unfortunate the Gophers couldn’t come away with a victory in that one.
Would I have liked to win against Michigan State at the Barn and Penn State in State College? Sure! Am I frustrated with the blown leads that occurred during that terrible, rotten, dirty, no-good five game losing streak we had in January? Absolutely! But perspective is so essential to enjoying this ride. As frustrating as the blown leads have been and as inconsistent as Coach Pitino has been in the crunch time of games, we’ve won our fair share of close games. The Gophers are 5-3 in games decided by 5 points or less or in an overtime period. That’s a pretty good mark and .625 winning percentage in close games is definitely tolerable.
Enjoy Nate Mason occasionally going ham on opposing defenses like he did in West Lafayette or at the Barn for a 10 minute period in last night’s game against Indiana.
Enjoy Reggie Lynch blocking an absurd percentage of shots that come his way, even if him fouling out of the game has become as likely as a Fran McCaffrey temper tantrum.
Enjoy Akeem Springs going full chucker, succeeded, and throwing up that goofy-looking three point hand gesture he has when he makes a shot from long range.
Enjoy Amir Coffey, both the fact he is already a scoring and passing savant as a freshman (!) and is especially successful when he balances aggressiveness and picking his spots.
Enjoy the quiet brilliance that is Eric Curry as a freshman forward, exemplified by the amazing tip to Springs he had to set up the game-winning shot against the Hoosiers last night.
Soak in the moments, good and bad. The good because that’s why we follow this team. The bad because it makes the good feel ten times better. This squad, assuming health and avoiding an epic collapse, will be in the Big Dance immediately following the worst season in Minnesota men’s basketball history. Only 19% of Division I teams get to enjoy the Madness of March and the Gophers will very likely be one of them.
So even though they might blow another halftime lead in College Park or Madison. Even though they may have a streak of play where Dupree McBrayer commits two turnovers, Lynch collects two fouls, and Springs chucks two ill-advised threes. Even though Pitino may not be a perfect coach or the second coming of his father, remember the joy of the moment.
Remember where they were a year ago. Remember how rare a truly “fun” season is at the Barn. Remember that anything can happen when that calendar flips to the month of March. Remember that nothing is given and the future is completely unknown.
I implore you, Gopher faithful to enjoy every moment of this season, because you never know what comes next and anything can happen come March.