December 6, 2004
A Program in Disarray
I fear the University of Minnesota men's basketball team is venturing into dangerous territory. They had a big academic scandal not so long ago, which led to the firing of the team's longtime coach, Clem Haskins, and all sorts of penalties for the program. With Haskins gone, they hired Dan Monson away from Gonzaga to rebuild the program and its reputation, a move that looked good at the time but has since proven to be a disaster.
Under Monson, the Gophers have become one of those teams in every major conference that the good teams count as a "win" before they even look at their schedule. The team is now at the low point of likely finishing at the bottom of the Big Ten conference for the second straight year. Monson is now in his sixth season at the helm of the Gophers and has gone 75-74 (.503) overall, including a miserable 29-51 (.363) in the Big Ten. And his record is only going to get worse. In Haskins' last six seasons at Minnesota, the Gophers went 115-62 (.650), including 60-44 (.577) in the Big Ten.
Monson has never won as many as even 18 games in a season at Minnesota, let alone 20. In his last six seasons here, Haskins won 18+ games four times and won 20 twice, including 26 wins in 1997. Monson has yet to take a Minnesota team to the NCAA tournament, let alone win a game there. In Haskins' last six years, the Gophers made the NCAA tourney four times, including a trip to the Final Four. A Monson team has yet to finish in the top half of the Big Ten, while Haskins got there four times in his last six seasons, including one Big Ten championship.
I could go on and on, but to be honest, it's not the losing that I'm worried about. What concerns me is that the team seems to be going in a bad direction in an effort to combat the losing. First they recruited and signed Rick Rickert and Kris Humphries, two McDonald's All-Americans who everyone in the world knew would only be staying for a year or two. But okay, plenty of teams are doing that.
Beyond that, Monson has now resorted to recruiting a lot of junior college players, undoubtedly trying to fight his lack of developed talent by landing a few guys who can be short-term fixes. He has also welcomed several transfers from other Division I schools, including Adam Boone from North Carolina, who was going to be the team's starting point guard before an injury, and Dan Coleman from Boston College, who is now perhaps the team's best player.
To me, mortgaging the future and any chance of building a consistently successful team by trying to patch holes with guys who, for whatever reason, couldn't make it on a Division I team out of high school is the beginning of the end for any coaching staff. First you lose, then you lose while trying to bend over backwards to bring in talented guys like Rickert and Humphries, and then when that doesn't work you lose by trying to find anyone you can who will allow the team to avoid being a complete embarrassment, even if those guys have questionable backgrounds and limited eligibility.
And that doesn't even begin to touch on the fact that few players actually improve under Monson, from Rickert to Mo Hargrow, my old high school classmate who looked great as a sophomore and not-so-great as a junior, before quitting the program and transferring to Arkansas (and then eventually transferring back, which is another issue). Hargrow was not the first star player to leave the program under Monson, as Joel Przybilla, another former McDonald's All-American, left in the middle of the year after reported problems with the coaching staff, and Rickert's departure came with some rumored problems as well.
Monson walked in to a very difficult situation here and, although I don't think he's done a particularly good job, I recognize that a lot of guys would have failed in his position. The team was a mess when he took it over, he was immediately hamstrung by the penalties, and he tried to restore respectability by bringing in Rickert, which failed because Rickert turned out to be not that good, and then Humphries, which failed because Humphries stayed for one year.
Now the team consists of a bunch of guys I don't even recognize. Their starting point guard, Aaron Robinson, is a guy who played 14 minutes per game last year, averaged 2.6 points per game while shooting 32.5%, and is slightly taller than Vern Troyer. (Seriously, I stood next to him at a bus stop last year and was startled that, yes, this guy plays major college basketball.)
Their starting center, Jeff Hagen, is a former walk-on who played 16 minutes per game last year, 10 minutes per game the year before, and, with all due respect, is someone who would have a tough time even playing at a place like Michigan State or Illinois. He's a serviceable player with some redeeming qualities, but at the end of the day he's one the team because he's seven feet tall, and the team is bad because that qualifies him as a starter.
The rest of the rotation includes two transfers, two JUCO recruits, and a freshman I literally never heard of before the Gophers announced he had signed on to play here. Spencer Tollackson is the only player on the team who was a legitimate, homegrown prospect who was recruited out of high school and enrolled as a freshman. They have no identity, they have no discernible plan, and they seem to be grasping for straws as they spiral out of control.
I don't see any conceivable way for Monson to successfully rebuild the program at this point. That's not to say he's not capable of doing so, because I think clearly he showed he can win while he was at Gonzaga. But rather, he is no longer capable of doing so here, if he ever was. As the old cliche goes, things usually get worse before they get better, and it seems to me we're at that "getting worse" stage right about now.