Cupcakes — this is the insulting term local media often uses to undervalue, underestimate and margainize the Gophers men’s basketball non-conference opponents each season. Former coach Clem Haskins hated such annual references to his early-season schedule, which included at least one Historically Black College and University (HBCU) school each year.
“Not only is it financially beneficial to them [the visiting team gets a guaranteed payout plus a portion of the gate receipts], but it also exposes them to a great city and a great atmosphere and Big Ten basketball,” explains Gopher Coach Tubby Smith on scheduling Tennessee State (TSU) at Williams Arena this Thursday at 7 pm. “That’s what we try to do on a yearly basis.”
Nearly 20 players who played at TSU, including Dick Barnett, Leonard “Truck” Robinson and Anthony Mason, were later drafted and distinguished themselves with long pro careers in the NBA. The late John McLendon, who learned and put into practice the fast break from James Naismith, won over 87 percent of his games as head coach in the 1950s.
“We have a lot of history and tradition at Tennessee State,” proclaimed first-year Head Coach Travis Williams, who has been at TSU since 2009. He was formerly the team’s top assistant under John Cooper, who accepted the Miami of Ohio job last spring.
“I was an assistant coach and was a part of putting the buzz back into this program,” said Williams. “We’re excited on where the program is going.”
Playing the Gophers is part of “a very tough non-conference schedule” that includes BYU and Missouri, said the TSU head coach. “We played South Carolina
and North Carolina last year. We go and play the best teams in order to go into our conference play. We are excited about coming to Minnesota.
“We are the only HBCU in the Ohio Valley Conference,” continued the Tigers coach. “We’re different from other traditional HBCUs — we don’t play in the SWAC or the MEAC.”
If the Minnesota faithful and the local snobbish media come Thursday with open eyes and minds, the TSU coach says they will see a team that loves to get out and run and hit the three as well as power the ball inside: “If you followed us last year, we missed on a last-second shot of going to the NCAA tournament.”
Williams predicts that his Tigers, who were picked second in the Ohio Valley Conference East preseason polls, “will be well-coached and will be disciplined.
“I think we have a lot of depth and a lot of key guys who are able to play almost every position,” he said. “We play a pressure-style defense and will pick you up. When you come and watch our team, you will see our guys play hard first and foremost.”
While on a layover in Denver as his team traveled to play BYU in Provo, Utah, Williams gave the MSR a brief prospectus on his players during a phone interview. Senior forward Robert Covington and junior guard Patrick Miller, both named to the OVC preseason team, lead the returnees.
Covington (17.8 ppg, 7.9 rebounds per game) was one of nine Division I players and the only Black college player last season to have 30 or more three-pointers (65), as well as 95 offensive rebounds, 43 assists, 45 blocks and 51 steals. The 6-9, 215-pound forward is a two-time all-conference team member who also made first-team HBCU All-American last season.
According to Williams, Covington “is on the NBA radar. He can score inside and outside.”
Miller (10.8 points, 3.6 assists per game), who came 300 points shy of 1,000 career points last season, and Mike Green, a 6-9 post player, also are expected to be key contributors, noted Williams.
Williams is looking forward to coaching against Smith in the only opportunity for two Black coaches to face each other in the Barn this season. “He is one of the most respected coaches in the business,” said Williams of Smith. “His track record speaks for itself.”
Did you know…?
How many HBCU schools have the Gophers historically played? Bonus: Name the school or schools that U of M played more than once. (Answer in next week’s “View.”)
Answer to last week’s question: How many former Timberwolves players are now NBA coaches? Two are head coaches: Tyrone Corbin (Utah) and Scott Brooks (Oklahoma City). Assistant coaches are Terry Porter (Wolves), Bobby Jackson (Sacramento), Chuck Person (Los Angeles Lakers), Robert Pack (L.A. Clippers), Scott Roth (Toronto), Sidney Lowe (Utah) and Sam Cassell (Washington).
It was a Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway moment when several members of the Gophers’ 1997 Final Four squad were back together again at the November 1 Minnesota Timberwolves-Sacramento contest: Bobby Jackson; former assistant coach Brent Haskins, now a Phoenix Suns scout; and Quincy Lewis, who does the Wolves’ social media segments.
Now in his second year as a Kings assistant coach, Jackson reminisced, “We were real close. We did something the university has never done,” adding that former coach Clem Haskins “got the best out of everybody.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.