I wish I could have been at Williams Arena two nights ago when the Gophers upset #1-ranked Indiana. In 1997, I was fortunate enough to be a student at the U of MN, so I had the pleasure of attending many games during that magical, Final Four-bound season. Let me tell you, I have been present for huge Vikings wins, amazing Twins comebacks, and thrilling victories during the Timberwolves’ one deep playoff run, but nothing compares to the energy in Williams Arena when the Gopher basketball team is winning a big game.
Just watching the Indiana victory on TV, I could feel the electricity in that building. The students were going insane and even bench players, some of whom were playing out of their minds, received standing ovations when they came off the court.
It is this atmosphere that makes it so difficult for Gopher fans to swallow the mediocrity that has been served up since 1997. A rabid fan base exists, just waiting for a chance to go bonkers and give their team the energy boost needed to beat any team that dares step up on to the raised floor of The Barn. And what recruit could say no after attending a game like the Hoosier victory? It doesn’t matter that the arena is 85 years old, when you have that much fun playing basketball, it could be played in an actual barn and talented players will still want to be a part of it.
So for those who say the U of M can never be a consistent Big Ten contender, I say “male cow excrement”. Williams Arena is a unique gem, fans are dying for a reason to support the team, and Minnesota is consistently churning out enough top high school talent that if the Gopher head coach can just keep most of it in state, he won’t have to shoot for the moon on out-of-state recruits. I’m not saying this program will become the next Duke, but there is absolutely no reason that they couldn’t be every bit as consistently good as Wisconsin. (You have no idea how painful it is for me to admit that.)
The Gophers won’t play too many more games in The Barn this year, so I’m glad they were able to salvage an unforgettable moment in a season that has had far too many forgettable ones.
Despite this huge victory, I am still not a Tubby Smith fan. His teams are far too inconsistent and seem to nose dive at exactly the time of year a team should be hitting its stride. It’s not as if the Indiana victory was some type of fluke; the Gophers have beaten quality teams such as Memphis, Michigan State, and Illinois soundly this season, yet they still go into inexplicable funks where they lose to teams like Northwestern and get embarrassed by painfully mediocre Iowa. I do want to see a new Gopher head coach next season, and while that looks highly unlikely now, I will be more than happy to have Tubby prove me wrong and start living up to the expectations that his huge salary commands.
Watching the Gophers win the other night was as much fun as I’ve had watching a sporting event in some time; I was pumping my fist and yelling so much my dog left the room in fear. The Williams Arena magic is always there, waiting for a Gopher team with the right mix of talent and heart to open a portal and set it free. I realize the University of Minnesota will never be Kansas or Kentucky, but they don’t have to be. Gopher fans’ expectations are much more generous than that, which is why it’s so maddening that they are not being met.
Williams Arena is an engine, not an anchor, and Tubby Smith was hired to gas it up and provide the spark. And as we saw the other night, it’s as good as it gets when it’s all revved up.