Back in the mix
Reborn Minnesota embracing higher expectations
By Brian Hamilton, Special to CNNSI.com
The funny thing, Dan Monson will tell you, is how the conversations are different. For two seasons, treading in the mire of damage control, the Minnesota coach heard the words sanctions and probation and limitations enough to copyright them. It was like a constant ringing, the tinnitus of rebuilding a shattered program.
The questions get asked. It's just a matter of when they stop. If they stop.
So here is Dan Monson, in his office in early October, wondering how he'd made it through a 45-minute conversation without a single query regarding NCAA penalties. Here he is in Chicago, at Big Ten media day, saying he gets goosebumps because everyone is interested in Minnesota basketball -- the on-court product, not the off-court calamity. Here he is on the team's media day last week, again free from those ugly words and embracing one that coaches usually treat like a communicable disease:
"At least people are expecting something out of us," Monson said. "I'd rather have it that way than the last two years, when there were no expectations at all."
Perhaps more than just the talk is different at Minnesota, in Year Three A.G. (After Ganglehoff). In March of 1999, an academic fraud scandal primarily involving a tutor, Jan Ganglehoff, writing papers for players broke, and by November, a team and an entire athletic department had been turned inside-out.
Monson had arrived that summer to oversee the rebuilding process. He has dealt with the probation and penalties. He has had to kick one player off the team, watch three others transfer and one quit entirely in mid-season. Now, though, there is a light.
Monson inked a golden recruiting class, featuring Rick Rickert, a homegrown McDonald's All-American. He wrought 18 wins out of an injury-plagued, undermanned team a year ago -- and now he has talent and depth everywhere for the first time.
"I do think that the program is going in the right direction. I am pleased," Monson said. "But now it's the pressure of having to produce. If we go 10-18 this year, that's not the steps we want to take. It was 13 [wins] the first year, 18 last year, and for this program to keep going in right direction, we're going to have to gave a good season."
Good is now measured by the NCAA tournament. It's another measure of how far things have come in such a short time. Minnesota's players won't accept anything but an NCAA invite, and no one is snickering at the thought.
"I think we'll be very disappointed in ourselves [if we don't go]," junior guard Kevin Burleson said. "Because we know we have the talent. If we don't go to the NCAAs, we didn't achieve something that we should have."
There are still enough new and inexperienced parts to make Monson wary. He recently told his squad that while they were the most talented team he's ever coached, they were the worst team he's ever coached -- driving home the point that, in terms of working together as a unit, the Gophers had a way to go.
But that is still a long way from two years ago. Then, Monson was staring down a season in which the school had self-imposed a ban on postseason play. As Monson said, there was no ultimate reward to be had that year. Now, that ultimate reward is within reach, so soon.
"There's no question that, this year, if we don't make the NCAA tournament, we're going to be very disappointed," Monson said. "We have the ability to do that, and if we don't, we haven't lived up to our expectations."
The questions have stopped. The questions have begun. It's just these kind of questions, Dan Monson says, keep them coming.
Brian Hamilton covers the Big Ten for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. His "This Week in the Big Ten" column will appear weekly during the season.