February 10, 2005

The Best $5 I've Ever Spent

It is amazing how quickly things can change in sports. Some of you may remember that I wrote an extraordinarily pessimistic column ("A Program in Disarray") about the University of Minnesota men's basketball team back in early December. In it, I essentially said that the Dan Monson Era (and the Rick Rickert and Kris Humphries Eras) has been a relative disaster and that the Gophers' future was no brighter than their recent past (which included a .363 conference winning percentage under Monson). I predicted a second straight finish at the bottom of the Big Ten Conference and said, "I don't see any conceivable way for Monson to successfully rebuild the program at this point."

Fast forward now to this past Saturday. My uncle woke me up at around nine in the morning and asked if I wanted to go with him to the Gophers-Wisconsin game at 11. I said yes, of course, and then watched in complete amazement as the Vincent Grier-led squad beat the 19th-ranked Badgers 60-50. Wisconsin had a two-point halftime lead, but Grier dominated the second half like no player I've ever seen in person. He scored 26 second-half points on 12-for-14 shooting, matching the Badgers' point total all by himself. Grier was also responsible for the spectacular dunk attempt you see pictured below, which had absolutely zero chance of ever going in, but was guaranteed to get me and everyone else in attendance on their feet.

It was a remarkable performance by Grier and the victory felt like the perfect peak in what was looking like an amazing season. After beating Wisconsin on national TV, the Gophers team that I thought would struggle so much was 6-3 in the conference and 16-6 overall. They had made their way up to #34 in the RPI rankings, putting themselves in excellent position to make the NCAA tournament for the first time under Monson. Before the season started, I got into a discussion about the Gophers' chances with my uncle and he felt pretty strongly that they would be much better than I gave them credit for. We made a $5 bet on them winning more than five games in the Big Ten, which he won on Saturday.

When I got home from the game, I was bursting with things to write about the Gophers. I was going to talk about how, while I've been wrong about plenty of things in plenty of ways, I have rarely been as wrong, as immediately as I was about the Gophers this season. I was going to talk about Grier's second-half performance and evoke the name of Bobby Jackson, which is the highest and rarest form of praise I can give a college basketball player. I was going to talk about the surprisingly raucous, sell-out crowd of 14,244 at Williams Arena, about how nice it felt to want to actually watch Gophers games again, and all sorts of other wonderful things.

For some reason -- and I'm really not sure why -- I decided to put those thoughts on hold for a little while. This whole week I've been walking around campus with these thoughts about the Gophers swirling around in my head; my need to publicly eat crow for what I wrote about them only surpassed by my need to put into words just how excited I was about their season. Then last night, as all that swirling was going on, the Gophers played a Northwestern team that was 10-11 overall and just 3-6 in the conference. The game was at home, but just 11,209 fans showed up and it wasn't on television locally or nationally. It was supposed to be the first of a few games down the stretch that the team could use to pad its win total and Grier had another great game, scoring 32 points on 16 shots. The Gophers lost, 55-53.

This Gophers team is just about the greatest example of the unpredictability of sports that you could ever find. No one -- not even my uncle -- expected them to finish near the top of the Big Ten and most people -- including myself -- expected them to finish right at the bottom. After a 2-3 start to the season that included three straight losses, the team basically disappeared from the state's collective mind. Then, almost before anyone could realize it, they were 16-6, beating a very tough Wisconsin team, and actually in the driver's seat for an NCAA bid. And then, just as I was ready to start caring again -- and I mean really caring -- they drop a home game to a completely mediocre Northwestern team that had lost by 15 at Wisconsin a week earlier.

Meanwhile, I'm out $5, an entire state of Gophers fans are thoroughly confused, and the only thing I know about this team that I didn't know when the season started is that they play defense and are actually fun to watch. Next up on the schedule is a road trip with games at Indiana and at Michigan State. I'd try to make some prediction, but there doesn't seem to be much point in that. The beauty of sports is that just when you think you know, you don't. And then when you think you know again, you really don't.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- The Best and Worst Teams of the Trade (by Studes)

- Fantasy Mailbag: More Keeper Questions (by Ben Jacobs)

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