Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Can the Gophers men's basketball team recover from a historically bad season?

Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson
Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson yells to his team as they play against Iowa in an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Minneapolis.
Bruce Kluckhohn/AP

This has been a historically bad year for the Gopher men’s basketball team. Tonight, Rutgers plays Minnesota at the Barn — our sports guys, Wally Langfellow and Eric Nelson give us a preview of that game and more sports news.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: It's Thursday on the program. That means it's time for sports. We got our two favorite sports guys here to round up what's happening this week. Wally Langfellow is the creator of Minnesota Score Magazine, the co-host of 10,000 Takes sports show on radio and TV. Eric Nelson's the other co-host of that show and the Vikings reporter for CBS Sports Eye on Football program. Hey, guys. How are you?

WALLY LANGFELLOW: Good, Cathy. How are you?

CATHY WURZER: I am fine. Thank you for asking. Eric Nelson?

ERIC NELSON: Hey, Cathy. Great to be on, as always.

CATHY WURZER: As always. Let's start with Gopher men's basketball. Boy, that's--


CATHY WURZER: --an abysmal-- I know. An abysmal program here. What's going on, Wally?

WALLY LANGFELLOW: Well, not much good. Ben Johnson took the program over last year. And basically, he had an empty cupboard because everybody had left, transferred out of the program after the departure of Richard Pitino. So last year was not very good. And this year actually has been worse. It's been a historically bad year for the Gophers. Tonight, they host Rutgers. Rutgers, pretty good team.

18-11 overall. 10 and 8 in the conference. Minnesota has lost 12 straight games. They're 7 and 20. They're 1 and 16 in the Big Ten. And as you look at the record and you say, OK, it's a bad year, but things got even worse last Friday when their big recruit, this kid out of Riverside, California, a five-star recruit, Dennis Evans, said that he wants to be released from his commitment to the U of M. They are most likely to do that.

He did sign a letter of intent, but he says he wants to go elsewhere. That's a huge setback for Ben Johnson. And now, in addition to recruiting kids out of high school, he's really going to have to look at the transfer portal, I think, older kids, kids that are playing at other universities right now, and they're wanting to transfer and find an opportunity someplace else. He's probably going to have to dig in to that to get some players to help turn this thing around because I know it's only been two years, but you're hearing the whispers.

Is Ben Johnson capable of turning the program around? And it's a wait and see, but it's going to be very difficult. I do think, though, he is going to have to get some players out of that transfer portal. Well, it's possible. It's not impossible. It's possible. It's kind of like free agency in professional sports. Hopefully he's able to do that.

CATHY WURZER: And Eric, the Gopher women are also having their-- or have had their problems here this season. And they were knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament. Eric, are you with me? Oh, it appears that we have lost Eric Nelson. Well, shoot. Well, I tell you what. Wally Langfellow, as we're trying-- I know you can talk about the Gopher women as we get Eric back on the line here. Go ahead.

WALLY LANGFELLOW: Yeah. So the Gophers went one and done in the Big Ten Tournament yesterday at Target Center, losing to Penn State. Now, the Target Center is the epicenter right now for Big Ten basketball. That's where the Big Ten Tournament is this year. And it really, as I said about the men, the women having their struggles too. Lindsay Whalen, who was a Hall of Fame player, a great player for the Gophers, as we know, for the Lynx as well. She led the Gophers to a Final Four.

But as a head coach, really has struggled. And the program in five years has not done what they are hoping. She's 26 games below 500 with her Big Ten record. Has not been to the NCAA tournament yet. So I think that it has been definitely a struggle. She has some young players, including Mara Braun and others, that I think will-- hopefully they stay. I talked about the transfer portal for the men. It happened--

CATHY WURZER: And as a matter of fact--

WALLY LANGFELLOW: --basketball too.

CATHY WURZER: OK. By the way, Eric Nelson, you with us?

ERIC NELSON: I am, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: And we're talking about Gopher women's basketball also struggling.

ERIC NELSON: Well, yeah. No doubt about it. When Lindsay Whalen was hired by Mark Coyle back in 2018, it was a splash hire. It garnered a lot of attention. And the Gophers were packing the barn that first year. But since then, and Wally's laid a lot of this out, the Gophers have never made the NCAA tournament. Their Big Ten record is horrible. They were in 12th place this season.

And then you have this Big Ten women's tournament. This is a marquee event right here in the Twin Cities. Target Center. Downtown Minneapolis. And they are gone after one day. So now, fans going in are going to have to cheer for the likes of Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Maryland, dare I say it, Wisconsin. The Gophers are gone. You got to pick another team to root for. So it's been a Dinkytown debacle for men's and women's hoops.

And we'll see what kind of patience the Gophers have with Mark Coyle. Now, a lot of us are saying Lindsay's had enough time to prove herself, that she's in over her skis as a head coach. But we just did talk to Pam Borton, who took the Gophers to the Final Four when Lindsay was the point guard. Pam Borton still believes that the future is bright for Lindsay Whalen in Minnesota, but I would say it has to turn around next season. No doubt about it.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Let's talk about the Wild. Wally, what's going on there?

WALLY LANGFELLOW: Wild have been on a little bit of a role. Eric and I were out covering the game against the Islanders on Tuesday night, which they won in a shootout. They now have a 7-game point streak. So in other words, they have picked up at least one point in seven straight games. They trail Dallas by just three points in the Central Division. Tonight, they are in Vancouver to play against the Canucks. The Wild, as I mentioned, though, they won by a score of 2 to 1, and of those was a shootout goal.

So they have not been scoring a lot lately. But they've been getting some really good goaltending from both Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury. Hopefully they can continue this so that they will solidify their playoff chances. But there's still a long ways to go. You still have about six weeks left in the regular season. And it's tightly compacted, the Central Division is.

One other NHL/hockey note, Lou Nanne, the former Gopher and of course former Minnesota North Star, and you still hear him during the state tournaments on television and so on, last night, he was inducted into the Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame. Well-deserved, obviously. I mean, he's a legend. Lou Nanne is a living legend. And we love having him on. We have him on our radio show often. So great news for Lou. And I know he was very happy to get the honor.

CATHY WURZER: He's one of my favorites. Hey, let's talk about the Vikings, Eric Nelson. You know that I'm not good on this. So I hear that there's this combine in Indianapolis this week.

ERIC NELSON: Oh, Cathy, come clean.

CATHY WURZER: First, what is that?

ERIC NELSON: Just come clean. I know as soon as you're leaving the airwaves at MPR, you're going to go watch the NFL Network's extensive coverage of the scouting combine. Yeah, basically, every year in downtown Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Colts, all these college prospects gather, and they are poked and prodded and evaluated and tested, and they get psychoanalysis from NFL scouts and coaches. It's ridiculous. It's paralysis by analysis. I call it the NFL Olympics.

They are more concerned about your time in the 40-yard dash or how you maneuver around cones in a drill or vertical jumping. Or they have one drill where, how many times can you bench press 225 pounds? This is all great, but can the guys play football? And a lot of times, a guy's stock will rise at the combine based on what he did in Indianapolis, even though you already know what he did on Saturdays at the collegiate level. So it's really bizarre.

But there is some good news that came out of the combine, Cathy, for the Vikings. The NFL Players Association gave out free agency report cards for all 32 teams. And your purple are number one. Now, it's not quite like winning the Super Bowl, but it is a positive because these are player-based rankings. The feedback came from the players.

And the categories are how their families are treated, food service and nutrition, the weight room, your strength coaches, your training room, your training staff, your locker room, team travel. So the Vikings get high marks. And on the flip side, Jacksonville had a rodent problem in their locker room and laundry areas. And apparently, the families aren't treated very well. They don't even have a daycare for the Jacksonville Jaguar families, wives and girlfriends, and parents.

CATHY WURZER: So the things you learn. The things you learn here on the program. OK, so before we go here, Mr. Langfellow, I want to-- I want to feel like there's warmer weather coming. So let's talk about spring training and the Twins.

WALLY LANGFELLOW: Well, Twins are playing today. They're playing Tampa Bay today in Grapefruit League action. That's in Florida, of course. Twins are 2 and 3 so far. I think that when folks are watching preseason baseball, Grapefruit League baseball, and the Cactus League out in Arizona, everybody is-- their eyes are on the pitch clock because of all the rules changes this year.

Pitch clock is the big deal. So you have to throw the ball-- you have to pitch the ball within 15 seconds, or it's an automatic ball. The batter has to be in the batter's box ready to go with 8 seconds to go, or it's an automatic ball. I mean, there's all kinds of things. But that's the new thing. Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Talk to you guys later, next week. Thanks, Wally Langfellow, Eric Nelson. They are our sports guys.

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