Going For The Gophers

By Jerold Wells Jr.
Updated: March 17, 2005

Minneapolis, Minn—Sometimes you get to go home again. Fate takes Vincent Grier and the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers to Charlotte, North Carolina for their opening round NCAA Tournament game against Iowa State this weekend. If home is where the heart is then expect a passion filled, gut wrenching, heartfelt performance from the Golden Gophers statistical and emotional leader this weekend. Quite simply, if Grier plays well they Gophers have a chance to advance to the round of 32 and play what amounts to North Carolina on their home floor. If he does not then the Cyclones of Iowa State will leave a devastated team and fan base in their wake.

It’s been a while since Minnesota received an invite to the big dance, six years to be exact. More importantly, it’s been even longer since there was a buzz this loud about Minnesota basketball. The last time the Golden Gophers men’s program generated such promise, a point guard by the name of Bobby Jackson was leading the Gophers to battle every night in Williams Arena. Jackson, like Grier a North Carolina native and junior college transfer, led the Gophers to the Final Four and cemented his place aside such Gopher legends as Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson, and Jim Brewer.

Grier leads a rag-tag bunch of former walk-ons and inexperienced players into March Madness and lead is exactly what he must do. Some can even argue that only one of Minnesota’s best three players is suiting up for the tournament. Adam Boone (Injury) and Moe Hargrow (Transfer) are sitting out this year, making the Gophers 20 wins overall and 10 in conference even more amazing. Coaches will say it’s amazing team play or an improved commitment to defense. True fans know that it’s the presence of a bona fide superstar. That superstar wears number 15.

What makes Grier special is his fearlessness. After watching a Gophers contest, you can see the characteristics in his game. Witness him shoot a passing lane at full speed for a steal and easy lay-up, challenge a taller defender at the basket after beating his man off the dribble on the wing, or attempt to finish a dunk over anyone is his path on the fast break and you can see exactly what it means to play basketball without fear. I followed the Gophers from afar this season, still bitter at the disappointment some call a season from a year ago. Selfish play from the team’s so-called star poisoned the team’s morale, as well as its defensive intensity, and the Gophers struggled mightily. The beginning of this season featured the usual also-rans and lower level mid major teams that are Golden Gopher staples. One thing did stick out though; close losses to Alabama, Florida State, and Oklahoma proved that this was not last years squad. They had a swagger, in spite of those losses. During close games, they did not seem like a team looking for ways to lose. Instead, they were team intent on finding ways to win. One night it might be the long-range marksmanship of Aaron Robinson or Brent Lawson. Another night it could be scoring on the blocks by Jeff Hagen or Spencer Tollackson. Occasionally, it was the spark off the bench known as Rico Tucker. The one constant in every Gopher victory was solid play offensively and defensively from Vincent Grier. If I, or anyone else for that matter, had any doubt that this was a different team it vanished after watching the Gophers upset the nationally ranked Wisconsin Badgers at Williams Arena. Grier erupted for 32 points (a career high) and, most importantly, led the Gophers to victory. Grier scored on drives to the basket, pull up free throw line jumpers, and smooth left-handed floaters in the lane.

He made a game against Minnesota’s hated rival his coming out party. The Golden Gophers informed a national audience that they were a tournament team, a team that would not play Big Ten pushover two years in a row. A team that featured a true leader.

With Vincent Grier leading Gopher resurgence and a tournament berth locked up for this year, Gopher fans can do something foreign to them in years past. They can look to the future. If Grier decides to return for a senior season, he will team up with former North Carolina Point man Adam Boone and former All Big Ten Honorable Mention selection Moe Hargrow to form a nucleus Big Ten teams will have to reckon with. A Big Ten title is not out the question, and high expectation may be tougher to deal with than any opponent the Golden Gophers meet next season.

High expectations usually come from family members and close friends, two groups of people you see a good deal of when you go home. Let’s hope that the pressure of great expectations and the thrill of going home again inspires Vincent Grier to play the game of his life in the round of 64 against Iowa State. Let’s also hope that effort is rewarded with a win.

Go Gophers!