Ahh, March in Minnesota. The weather is getting warmer. The days are getting longer. The state hockey tournament just completed another excellent year. Everyone is ready to fill out their NCAA Tournament brackets. And the Minnesota Golden Gophers men's basketball team is...
...nowhere to be found. Again (unless you're a fan of the also-ran NIT Tournament, of course).
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Gophers' last NCAA tournament victory -- Fifteen years since you could write the word "Minnesota" more than once on a printed bracket. What's worse is the fact that you can add "and counting" to that "fifteen years" considering Minnesota wasn't one of the six teams invited to play in the most prestigious postseason tournament in the college basketball domain.
By contrast, fellow Big Ten member Michigan State has accumulated thirty-five NCAA tournament victories in that same period. The Gophers have as many combined tournament appearances as their neighbors in the Dakotas in the past five years--North Dakota State made it in 2009 and South Dakota State punched their first ticket this season (no, it isn't too late to jump on the bandwagon). Yes, that means the Gophers have much more in common with teams in their region that weren't even Division I programs in the past decade than most of their conference brethren.
For those of us that are old enough to remember Minnesota's last NCAA victory, you might recall the extremely entertaining run by Bobby Jackson & company to the Final Four in 1997. Unfortunately, their dream season was abruptly ended by Kentucky. That Kentucky team ended up losing to Arizona in the championship game and hired a new coach less than two months later.
That coach's name? Tubby Smith.
Smith won the national championship in his first year with Kentucky. Fifteen years later, that same Tubby Smith's job is now in jeopardy thanks to another disappointing campaign as head coach of the Gophers. Sure, their overtime win on Thursday was nice -- and denied poor Northwestern their first-ever NCAA tournament bid -- but the Gophers are headed for the NIT yet again.
You could speculate for days about why Smith hasn't had the success Gophers fans had hoped for since he arrived in 2007. The team has had bad luck with injuries, including losing star Trevor Mbakwe at the beginning of this season. They've had problems keeping some of Minnesota's highest rated high school recruits in the state. Perhaps their athletic director is more focused on non-revenue sports to give the basketball program a fair shot.
More than likely it's a combination of all those reasons as well as others. But the bottom line is that Minnesota fans are stuck rooting for their neighbors to the west lately, and that just doesn't have the same panache as rooting for your hometown five to advance in the bracket.
Things need to change with the Golden Gopher men's basketball program, and soon. Minnesota cannot manage much more mild March Mediocrity.