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The Top 5 Minnesota Basketball teams over the last 30 years

Let’s look at the best Gopher teams in our lifetime and how this year’s team compares.

It is the offseason (duh) which is time for two things. High expectations for the upcoming season and lists. People are quite excited about the upcoming Minnesota basketball season. Virtually the entire roster returns from a team that finished a trip to the NCAA Tournament after finishing higher in the Big Ten than we have seen in a very long time. There’s a reason people have high expectations.

I wanted to look back at some of the best Gopher teams seen over the last 30 years or so, basically back to when Clem took over. Here’s my list, which is of course open for debate.

#1 - 96/97 Final Four Team

This one is easy. For Gopher fans old enough to remember (and perhaps young enough that they don’t have the memory of any of the Musselman teams from the 70s), this is clearly the best team we have seen play at the Barn.

Ranked #2 for most of the season, behind Kansas, this roster had 4 eventual first round draft picks, the first 1st Team All-American since Mychal Thompson and a run to the program’s first ever Final Four (don’t try to tell me it never happened).

#2 - 89/90 Elite Eight Team

It was the 88/89 team that made the program’s first run in the current format of the NCAA Tournament. The year before Clem Haskins guided his team to the Sweet 16 and the team’s only senior was Ray Gaffney. Returning in the Fall of 1989 was Willie Burton, Walter Bond, Richard Coffey, Kevin Lynch, Melvin Newborn and Jim Shikenjanski.

This team had toughness to it and they were quite good. Even many of their losses were very close. When you think of a physical “Big Ten” team, this is it.

Once again making the NCAA Tournament, as a 6-seed they took care of business in the first two rounds beating UTEP and Northern Iowa. Then they managed to contain and beat a Derrick Coleman led Syracuse team before getting Kenny Anderson and Dennis Scott of Georgia Tech.

Despite Scott’s 40 and Anderson’s 30, Willie Burton’s 35 points kept the Gophers in the game and it was a wide open Lynch three that didn’t fall in the final seconds to seal the fate of the Gophers who were 1-game (and 2 points) shy of reaching the Final Four.

#3 93/94 NCAA 2nd Round

Now it gets to be a little bit more debatable.

Preseason ranked #10 in the AP Poll, this highest preseason ranking in this span of Gopher hoops. It was lead by a core of Voshon Leonard (JR), Ariel McDonald (SR) and Randy Carter (SR). Also major contributors were the likes of Townsend Orr, Owatonna’s Chad Kolander, David Grimm and who could ever forget Ernest Nzigamasabo (thank God I was blogging when he was playing).

This same core won the NIT in the 92/93 season and there were some high hopes for this 93/94 season. Ultimately this team finished tied for 4th in the Big Ten, earned an NCAA bid as a 6-seed where they beat Southern Illinois before losing to 3-seeded Louisville in the second round.

As a side note, I am pretty sure that this was my first game attended at the Barn when Glenn Robinson came to town as a sophomore and beat the Gophers in a tight one, 72-75. I think I was at a game or two as a small child, but this was the first game I remember.

#4 - 16/17 Pitino’s First NCAA Team

A pretty talented team that complimented each other very well. Early in the season it was largely Dupree McBrayer carrying the offensive load before Nate Mason got going in the early Big Ten season and then Jordan Murphy came on late. All along Reggie Lynch helped transform this team into a very good defensive team with his rim-protecting skills.

This team earned their best Big Ten record and highest NCAA seed since the Final Four team. The team racked up a bunch of Big Ten honors including Lynch being named the league’s defensive player of the year and Richard Pitino earning coach of the year.

Things came to an abrupt end when Akeem Springs was injured in the Big Ten Tournament which crippled the team’s razor thin depth. And they were quickly upset in the NCAA Tournament by a dangerous 12-seed.

But this team lands here for a combination of having one of the more balanced and talented rosters over the last 30 years and actually accomplishing some rare feats like the aforementioned Big Ten finish and NCAA seeding along with an 8-game Big Ten winning streak.

#5 - 10/11 Tubby’s Disappointing Crew

This team was rather talented and worked their way up to an early season ranking of #14 in the country, thanks in part to a win over #8 ranked North Carolina and then beating West Virginia to win the Puerto Rico Shootout.

A couple of talented senior guards who complimented each other very well in Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber lead the backcourt. In the frontcourt, Tubby Smith’s team was bolstered by the addition of Trevor Mbakwe who averaged a double-double and earned 2nd team All-Big Ten honors. Rodney Williams in his second year, Austin Hollins as a freshman, juniors Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson were also key contributors on this team. A winning streak in January had this team at 16-4 with a top 20 ranking and that’s when the bottom fell out.

Early in the season, the talented Devoe Joseph left the team which they managed to weather. But then Al Nolen gets injured creating a huge void in leadership and really leaving the team without anyone to play PG. Blake Hoffarber was asked to handle duties as point, that didn’t work. After that it was Chip Armelin and Maverick Ahanmisi, both freshmen, who were asked to step in. But they were ill-equipped to continue leading this successful team. They ended up losing 9 of their last 10 games and went from being a tourney lock to missing the NCAA Tournament altogether.

This team gets included in the top 5 based more on talent and potential than actual results. The next couple years you added Andre Hollins as Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams matured, but Tubby never really had an answer at point which really held those teams back.

Honorable Mention

  • 2004-05 - Dan Monson’s lone NCAA team. The one lead by Vincent Grier and on the backs of Jim Molinari’s defensive coaching.
  • 2011-12 - A talented Tubby team that followed up the prior season’s February swoon with another. Andre Hollins’ freshman season.
  • 1988-89 - Clem’s Sweet 16 team. Very good, but I gave the 89/90 team the bump and left them off. One could easily make the argument that they belong in the top 5.

What About The 2017-18 Team?

This post really isn’t about defining expectations or making predictions for next year’s team. Certainly there are a number of variables that factor into what makes a successful season, many of which are out of anyone’s control. But there is no denying the potential is certainly there for this team to be special. They will almost surely be a top 20 team to begin the season which will be the highest pre-season rank a Gopher team has had since that 93/94 team referenced above.

There are a lot of reasons for optimism. 7 of your top 8 return and you add 3 guys who you expect to contribute, giving you more depth to go with what is already a talented team. Certainly if we are publishing this list next year, I will not at all be surprised to see the 2017-18 team on the list.