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Almost Glory: the 1997 Minnesota Golden Gophers

The greatest Gophers team ever comes with an asterisk

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The finest basketball team to ever wear the maroon and gold.

Coach: Clem Haskins

Record: 31-4 (16-2 in the Big Ten)

Big Ten Conference Champions

Key Players/Stats:

  • G Bobby Jackson, Sophomore, 15.3 PPG, 6.1 REB, 4 AST, 2.1 STL
  • G Sam Jacobson, Junior, 13.7 PPG, 4.5 REB
  • G Eric Harris, Junior, 11 PPG, 3.8 AST, 2 STL

Bobby Jackson was fun as hell to watch. The sophomore with the high socks, he hardly ever slowed or stopped moving, with a silky smooth handle and an array of maneuvers. He always seemed to be in the right place on the court, his six rebounds a game impressive for his 6’1” stature. He easily took home Big Ten POY honors.

The whole team was a delight. A guard heavy attack that got into the lane early and often, they played fast and loose with a chip on their shoulder. They knew, even if no one else did, that they were better than everyone else. They passed beautifully as a team and played nasty defense behind a range of looks from Coach Clem Haskins and his staff.

In perhaps the greatest Sweet Sixteen of all time (seriously, look it up), Jackson exploded for 36 points against Clemson to save the Gophers season and set up a #1 vs. #2 match-up against the UCLA Bruins, a talented team just a few years removed from their own title.

The game was tense and enjoyable throughout. Minnesota fell behind early, but UCLA couldn’t put them away (it helped that the Bruins missed approximately one million open three’s). And then the Gophers clamped down, running their patented pressure defense to high-flying offense attack.

Watch this fast break off a UCLA miss, wild and loose yet somehow in control:

That pulled Minnesota to within three and they won it on free throws going away.

However, and we’ve seen this before on Almost Glory, they ran into a juggernaut: the University of Kentucky Wildcats, the bluest of the blue bloods. This was Rick Pitino’s final UK team, before his ill-fated sojourn to the Boston Celtics. Behind Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer, and co. they stormed to their second straight title before getting historically upset by the Arizona Wildcats (Tony Delk, alas, was not walking through that door).

Unfortunately, Coach Haskins’ legacy with the Gophers revolves more around an academic scandal that called his entire tenure into question (for some people: an office worker completing hundreds of hours of course work for the players is academically unethical but I think the whole of college basketball is laboriously ethical, so it’s a wash to me. But I digress.) Haskins took a buy-out a few years later, and the NCAA vacated all tourney wins.

In the two decades since that magical season, Minnesota has been an after-thought in the Big Ten, despite the hiring of two high profile coaches after Haskins buy-out, Gonzaga’s Dan Monson and Kentucky’s Tubby Smith. They’ve won one tournament game and have finished with a winning conference record one other time. And now Richard Pitino is making an uphill climb after last season’s abysmal showing.

This is a bummer. It’s a better league when Minnesota is competitive. They play in a great unique arena, “The Barn”, have a built-in rivalry with Wisconsin, and are one of a handful of high-major programs that have actually hired multiple black head coaches.

Bobby Jackson would go on to become an integral bench piece on the early 00s Sacramento Kings. His high socks and sick handle couldn’t help C-Webb’s team get over the hump against the Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers. But that story is for Almost Glory: NBA edition.