MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- One by one, they ripped the labels off Minnesota's teams.
Flip Saunders tore the "scandal-ridden" off the Timberwolves.
Jacques Lemaire yanked the "expansion" from his Wild.
Dan Monson? He continues to keep ripping, yanking and tearing at every negative that attaches itself to his Gophers.
"They've endured two years of scandals, injuries and defections," Monson said. "If there's a team in America that's proved it isn't going to go away, it's this one."
If there are three coaches from one area who wouldn't allow it, it's this trio.
While Minnesota's teams still are flying a tad below the nation's radar, at least they're airborne. That's more than anyone expected from any of them. A combined 50-60 wins seemed reasonable from them. Total. They had 71 victories going into the week.
If ever the Farmer's Almanac had reason to predict a frigid winter for Minnesota's teams, this was the one.
The Wolves lost Malik Sealy to a tragic automobile accident, then Joe Smith to a secret business deal that was both illegal and ill-advised. The Gophers lost Joel Pryzbilla, the 7-footer who stopped going to class one year after a far-reaching case of academic fraud rocked the program. Then they lost Michael Bauer and J.B. Bickerstaff to injuries, each for the second season in a row. The Wild never had anyone worth losing in the first place.
And yet they won -- at least more than anyone expected from them.
Their MVPs are working the sidelines.
Monson should be a shoo-in for Big Ten coach of the year. Lemaire will be the first coach of an expansion team to receive serious consideration for the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL's top coach. Saunders' star has fallen slightly the past week, but he has to be among the NBA's top coach-of-the-year candidates.
Monson stands above the rest in the Big Ten not just because of Williams Arena's raised floor. The Gophers went into their game at Wisconsin on Wednesday with a 17-9 record -- about three times as many victories as most expected -- by constantly re-inventing themselves, often on the fly and even if it contradicts Monson's own belief system.
They are now playing a spread offense, usually with two forwards and three guards, sometimes with a forward and four guards, but almost never with the standard two forwards, a center and two guards. Monson must now lean so much on Terrance Simmons for offense, he said Simmons cannot stop shooting even if he goes 1-for-10.
"Then 1-for-10 isn't good enough," Monson said. "Then he needs to go 1-for-15."
Monson turned down an interview offer by Notre Dame last summer and is being mentioned as a possible candidate at Michigan even before Brian Ellerbe has been fired. Monson, who has endured the two toughest seasons of his career, said he isn't going anywhere.
Lemaire won the Wild players over long before going toe-to-toe in the press last week with the legendary Mario Lemieux, who said their disciplined, defensive style is bad for the NHL. Lemeiux never explained how an expansion team is expected to win playing any other style if no teams are willing up give up their goal-scorers.
At 55, Lemaire still rolls up his sleeves and breaks a sweat during practices, and has them skating, according to one observer, like "a flock of five." The disciplined, conservative label, while true, doesn't necessary stick to Lemaire. After the Wild was shut out against the Los Angeles Kings last Friday, he urged them to fire away.
"We need more shots, even if they're the wrong shots," Lemaire said. "If we're taking more shots from the outside, maybe we're at least scoring on the rebound."
Through their trying times, Saunders held a number of team meetings that brought the Timberwolves closer together. Saunders, himself, has had to take on a greater workload because of vice president Kevin McHale's self-imposed one-year suspension. Though the Wolves haven't played well following an 11-game winning streak, few teams play as much as a team. They lead the NBA in assists. Going into Wednesday's game, they were 29-12 when they had a day to prepare for games and 3-10 when they didn't.
That's coaching, the only thing that's holding Minnesota's teams together.
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