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Original Issue

Gophers get out of a hole

Beset by defections and an NCAA probe, Minnesota has rallied around a Bahamian center and a coach who stresses the joys of competing

When University of Minnesota Basketball Coach Jim Dutcher attempted last week to carry his Christmas tree from his house to the curb and ran into the garage door and gashed open his head, he hardly flinched. No wonder—a bloodied cranium is a minor misfortune compared to others Dutcher has suffered since he took over the Gophers five months ago.

Dutcher had only two alternatives when he came to Minneapolis from an assistant's job at Michigan and surveyed his new kingdom. He could face it like a man and put a gun to his head, or he could be a coward and try to make something of a program that was in shambles. He chose the cowardly way out.

When Dutcher arrived on campus, he was almost trampled by the exodus of players. Off went scoring (15.9 points per game) and rebounding (8.2) leader Mark Olberding, a sophomore-to-be who, some Minnesotans felt, could lead the Gophers to a national championship. Instead, he turned pro. Off went Mark Landsberger, the team's No. 2 scorer and rebounder. He left for Arizona State because he was mad at departed win-at-all-costs Coach Bill Musselman. Two other returnees, Chad Nelson and Kenny Robinson, left for other schools, and prize freshman recruit Jimmy Jackson flew away to Boston College because he did not like what he heard about an investigation of the Gophers' program. The NCAA is looking into more than 100 violations that were committed at Minnesota while the university went about its basketball business during the Musselman era. That investigation could result in a lengthy probation for the Gophers.

Finally, the state Human Rights Commission filed a suit against the university, charging discrimination in the selection of Dutcher instead of a black assistant coach from the University of Virginia. It was at about this time that Minnesota fans, who led the nation in attendance last year with 16,850 per game, began calling in sick. Their interest in the Gophers certainly was not whetted by the fact that two of the four lettermen Dutcher managed to retain had averaged about two points a game a season ago.

Nonetheless, Dutcher, who, ironically, lives in a house on Bliss Lane, hitched up his trousers, confessed to friends after his team's first practice, "We're not going to win a game," and forthwith directed Minnesota to eight straight victories. The first loss came last week, a double overtime 111-110 defeat by Purdue in the Gophers' Big Ten opener. Minnesota was not disgraced.

The Gophers have compiled this excellent record with astute coaching and a collection of starters held together by tape and courage. There are two guys from Nassau, Bahamas—6'10" Center Mike Thompson and Guard Osborne Lockhart—who hate snow, which Minnesota has plenty of; a hustling 5'11" guard, Phil Saunders, who plays on a wobbly knee; a freshman forward, Gary Korkowski, who will be good when he learns to foul less and score more; and a 6'2" junior college transfer, Ray Williams, who is far too short for a forward and plays on a far too weak ankle, but has far too much ability for many teams to handle. The best of the crop is Thompson, who is averaging 25.7 points per game, including a 14-of-19, 33-point performance against Purdue.

Even with the sensational start, Minnesota is not expected to rip up the Big Ten this year. Just how good the Gophers are, or are not, will be determined this week in games with Michigan, Illinois and Iowa. But if they stumble in their league, Dutcher will still deserve credit for a remarkable accomplishment merely because he took the shattered pieces and glued something together. Minnesota managed to win more games during its nonconference schedule than it was expected to win all year. Included among its victims was Marquette, which was then the nation's second-ranked team.

Even without the victories, Dutcher would be a welcome change for Minnesota's players. They were not happy about those occasions when Musselman refused to ride back on the same plane with them after defeats because, he said, he did not want to associate with losers. With the NCAA snapping at his heels last summer, Musselman left town in a hurry to join the pros.

Dutcher could not be more unlike his predecessor. During the 1971-72 season, Musselman defended his Gophers after two of them had attacked a prostrate Ohio State player during a brawling game. The same year, Dutcher, whose Eastern Michigan team was a small-college power, abruptly quit as a protest against violence in basketball when his star player duked it out with an opponent. He went on to become an assistant at Michigan, where he was credited with adding defense to the Wolverines' repertoire. In his 18th season of college coaching he can still say, "I don't think winning and having fun are in conflict. If you aren't having fun, why play? If we lose, we'll play again next week."

Even after the loss to Purdue, Dutcher was not distraught. "All I want us to do is play up to our potential," he said. With little height or reserve strength but a ton of want-to, Minnesota already has exceeded that goal.