February 4th, 1928. That was the day the Williams Center opened, christening a new home for Minnesota Gophers men’s and women’s basketball. Last night’s game against Nebraska commemorated that day in February, as it marked 90 years of hoops in The Barn. Certainly the arena, renovated in 1950, 1993, and again in 1997, has seen its share of moments. Whether those moments are good or bad depends on who you ask and where the fandom lies. For Minnesota fans, there are plenty of fantastic moments that took place within the Williams Center walls. So, let us remember a few of those sequences and figures to honor the The Barn on its 90th birthday.
1971-’72: The first NCAA Tournament birth
Believe it or not, it took the Gophers nearly 50 seasons in Williams Arena before they made the NCAA Tournament. In 1971-’72, the team finally broke their tournament seal with an 18-7 record, including an 11-3 Big Ten mark. Keep in mind, this is well before the days of the Big Ten Tournament and automatic qualifiers. The Gophers great record in conference play led to them claiming what was then the Big Ten crown.
Within their 18 victories, nine of them came at The Barn, with only loss at home. In the end, that Gophers team lost in the Regional Semifinal to Florida State. However, that dry spell of NCAA Tournament appearances was finally broken at The Barn.
1974-’80: Thompson then McHale
With a revival of the program following the NCAA Tournament berth a few years prior, Minnesota became more palatable to recruits. Two of these recruits played in succession of one another from 1974-’80. Perhaps the lesser known name, from a professional perspective, is Mychal Thompson. Nowadays, Thompson is more famous for his son, Klay. However, in his time as a Gopher, the elder Thompson cemented himself as arguably the best to play at the school.
Between 1974-’78, Thompson poured in a total of 1,992 points, the best in school history. Not only that, the big man snared a school record 956 rebounds. He was also named an All-American in his final two years at the university.
With a slight overlap, another post presence came along in Kevin McHale. One will associate McHale with his wildly successful professional career with the Boston Celtics. Though his pro career is what made him the household name he is now, McHale is still on Minnnesota’s leader boards. He ranks fourth all-time in points and second in rebounds, as well as first in blocked shots. McHale may not have been the box score stuffer Thompson was, but he did turn out to have a more successful NBA gig.
1996-’97: Finally, the Final Four
The program enjoyed some fantastic success in the 1990s under head coach Clem Haskins. This was most evident in 1996-’97 where the team went a total of 31-4 on the season. Included in that was a 16-2 Big Ten mark, which was the regular season’s best. The team then coasted through the NCAA Tournament before losing to Kentucky in the National Semifinal. It was the program’s first Final Four appearance in 101 seasons. Not to mention, the team went 15-0 at Williams Arena that season.
Bobby Jackson won Big Ten Player of the Year by averaging 15 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals per game. However, all of this unheralded success was taken away due to a massive academic fraud scandal. Hence, the school’s Final Four appearance was stripped, along with three other NCAA Tournament berths. Jackson got his Big Ten Player of the Year and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards taken from him. Lastly, the team’s two NIT appearances (one of those being a tournament championship) were stripped.
Thus, the Minnesota Gophers still search for their first legitimate Final Four appearance.
2007-’08: Thank You Tubby.
In 2006-’07 the Gophers went a measly 9-22 under coach Dan Monson. After the season, former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith was hired. In just one season, Smith turned Minnesota around, as the team went 20-14 the ensuing season. In fact, Smith never had a season where he was below .500 in the win-loss column. Along with that he led the Gophers to three NCAA Tournament appearances, including back-to-back bids from 2008-’10.
However, Smith was never able to make it past the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Even in his best season at the school, the team lost immediately in the first round. That occurred despite the team going 22-11 overall. Smith was relieved of his duties after the 2012-’13 season. Yet, I want to thank Tubby because he turned teams with mediocre talent into tournament bids. That has to be commended on some level.
These are just a few of the people, teams, and coaches that Williams Arena has seen over the last 90 years. Surely, I am missing some, and that is to be expected given the rich history of Williams Arena and Minnesota basketball. You can comment your favorite Barn memory or event below, because we all know I missed some. However, let us all raise a glass and toast to The Barn, the most iconic symbol in Gopher basketball history.