MINNEAPOLIS -- After another valiant comeback had fallen short and ended Minnesota's season Monday, the conversation soon turned to Rick Rickert, Jerry Holman and the Gophers' prospects for next season.
But not for long.
Coach Dan Monson wasn't done talking about the team that overcame the long shadow of an academic scandal and season-ending injuries to two starters to finish a surprising 18-14. Not after watching them rally yet again, this time from an 18-point second-half deficit, before losing 76-73 in overtime to Tulsa in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
Anyone who wanted to talk about Rickert or Holman, two key recruits for next season, was missing the point, Monson said.
"Everybody else is waiting for next year," Monson said. "The hardest thing I've had to do in a long time is say goodbye to this year.
"I think it's sad that too many people think that there was a weight lifted off our shoulders to get ready for next year. I haven't had more fun coaching a group than these guys. These guys lived this year."
Before the season began, the NCAA opened the door for the Gophers when it showed leniency toward a group of players with no involvement in the academic scandal uncovered in 1999. The Gophers would be eligible for postseason play.
Few people thought Minnesota had enough talent to win a spot in the NCAA tournament. Then the Gophers went out and won 12 of 13 non-conference games and opened the Big Ten 3-1, including a rally to beat Indiana in overtime after trailing by 13 with three minutes left.
Two games later, Michael Bauer was lost for the season because of a broken arm. Three games after that, John-Blair Bickerstaff was lost because of a broken leg. Bauer was perhaps the most feisty Gopher; Bickerstaff the respected captain.
Down to their last seven scholarship players, the Gophers would win only two of their last nine games. But that doesn't tell the story of their final month.
In their first game following Bickerstaff's injury, they trailed No. 4 Michigan State by two with less than four minutes remaining before losing 94-83. They gave No. 5 Illinois a scare before losing 67-59 in the final game of the Big Ten regular season. They rallied from 18 down before losing in overtime to Tulsa.
"We battled against all odds," said Terrance Simmons, who averaged 12.3 points before Bickerstaff's injury and 19.3 in the nine games after it. "This team never caved in. We've played hard all through to the final buzzer."
There also were failed comebacks against Ohio State and another against Iowa. If moral victories counted, the Gophers would've been 24-8.
"You can tell more about people under adversity than any other time," Monson said. "It's easier if things are going well. These players haven't had things go well for them for two years now. The strongest survive. They're the ones who endured it all, and they're the ones battling to the end."
Simmons and Bickerstaff will be gone, but the Gophers will be in great shape if they work as hard next season.
The Gophers return yearlong starters Dusty Rychart, who averaged 14.6 points and 8.0 rebounds, and Shane Schilling (8.4 ppg). Bauer was averaging 11.4 points before his injury. Five others started at least one game. They will be joined by a highly regarded recruiting class that includes Rickert, a versatile 6-foot-10 star from Duluth East, and Holman, a 6-10 signee from Minneapolis Community College.
They also will be met by high expectations, though none higher than their own.
"Terrance told us we better keep working hard," Schilling said, "because he expects us to be in the NCAA tournament next year."
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