It’s been 25 years since the Minnesota men’s basketball team was the toast of the state, an unexpected splash on the national college basketball landscape when they made their Final Four run which began in Kansas City and ended in Indianapolis during a three-week trek.
The 1996-97 Gophers were the last school team to win a Big Ten title without a tournament needed to get the NCAA automatic bid. Clem Haskins was coach of the year. Bobby Jackson was the league’s best player. Eric Harris, John Thomas, Sam Jacobson and Courtney James along with Jackson comprised one of America’s best starting units that year.
It was a hard-working, blue-collar type of team made up mostly of low-profiled players. They started the season ranked 22nd in the national preseason poll but reached an all-time high of third in the final poll as winners of 22 of their final 24 games to finish the year.
Temple’s vaunted matchup zone couldn’t stop these Gophers. Neither could Cincinnati. And the hometown Gophs survived a double-overtime thriller over Clemson and a six-point win over UCLA in a 48-hour span that carried Minnesota to its first-ever Final Four berth in Indy.
The Clemson game, remembered Harris, then a junior guard from New York, “stood out because we mirrored each other,” he told us in a recent MSR phone interview. The team’s overall success that season, he continued, didn’t surprise him or his mates. “We knew how hard we worked… We were confident,” he said.
However, the magical ride ran into Kentucky’s pressure defense, which forced the underdog Gophers into turning the ball over 20 times. They couldn’t gain any sustained momentum before falling to the Wildcats by nine points in the national semifinals.
Harris against UCLA suffered a separated shoulder, which hampered his play the rest of the way. “I missed a bunny [layup] that would have put us closer,” recalled Harris. “That game was a struggle.”
The MSR watched that game, as well as other contests in person in our first-ever Final Four trip and our first time in Indianapolis that all ended that night in late March 1997.
A quarter-century later, Harris’ memories are still fresh, as well as ours, despite the NCAA several years afterwards stripping Minnesota’s Final Four appearance from its books due to academic violations. The 1997 Big Ten title and Haskins’ and Jackson’s conference honors also were stripped or “vacated.”
But some things about that 1997 Gophers team still remain. We recently found a sporting apparel website selling Harris’ No. 33 Gopher replica jersey “in various size(s)…only available for a limited time!”
“Anytime you have a team like that that reaches a level of success,” concluded Harris, now a basketball skills specialist in his home state, “everybody’s such a joy being around each other.”
Black coaches still in play
Among the 136 total men’s and women’s teams that are still alive and competing in this week’s NCAA field are several qualifiers coached by Blacks. They include Howard (MEAC women), Norfolk State (MEAC men), and Alcorn State (SWAC men).
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.