In a world of Cinderella teams, bracketology and bubble-bursting squads, it’s nearly the time of year for Dicky V’s famous words: “March Madness BABY!”
As a die-hard lifelong basketball fan, I consider this time of year a national holiday, and with both the Forest Lake boys’ and girls’ basketball teams entering the section tournament this week, it’s the perfect time to relive some basketball memories of my own.
As hard as it is to admit, I first jumped on the fan bandwagon in 1996 as an 8-year-old.
The Gophers were out— they didn’t even make it to the big dance. So why not cheer for a No. 1 seed and be able to gloat to my older brothers about rooting for a winning team? I chose wisely that year: Kentucky.
I cheered on the Wildcats in game after game. They plowed over San Jose State, Virginia Tech and Utah in the first rounds before erasing Wake Forest by 20 points in the Elite Eight. Kentucky beat out the only other No. 1 seed to make it into the Final Four, Massachusetts, and earned a spot in the title matchup.
Decked out in my St. Thomas basketball jersey, where my oldest brother was heading to play ball, I put together a dance routine with my lifesize Barbie doll to celebrate the Kentucky Wildcats’ 76-67 win over Syracuse for their sixth national championship title.
Biting My Tongue
I paid for giving my heart to the Wildcats in ‘96 just a year later when my beloved Gophers not only made the NCAA tournament under head coach Clem Haskins, but advanced to the Final Four as a No. 1 seed alongside Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina.
My mom, Jodi, allowed me to stay home from Sibley Elementary School to support our home-state squad and keep track of the three different bracketology predictions we had filled out for our family competition.
Together we watched Minnesota defeat Texas Tech and Temple to reach the Sweet Sixteen, get past fourth-seeded Clemson by six points to enter the Elite Eight. And after an 80-72 victory over second-seeded UCLA, we knew the Gophers had just one obstacle to make it to the national championship game: Kentucky.
But combine the scoring skill and rebounding threat of Wildcat forward Ron Mercer with a supporting cast of Anthony Epps, Derek Anderson and Scott Padgett? Bobby Jackson at the Gophs just couldn’t keep up, and Kentucky went on to play Arizona in the final for an all-Wildcat matchup.
Here and Now
It’s another on-again-off-again year for Minnesota and Kentucky.
The Wildcats may not even earn an NCAA bid despite winning the title last year after a 38-2 season, while the Gophers hope to finish strong to make the big dance with a record of 20-9 overall and 8-8 in the Big Ten Conference.
Minnesota is coming off a huge upset over top-ranked Indiana and a blowout victory over Penn State, following a rough patch of 3-8 in the 11 games prior to beating the Hoosiers at home.
The Gophers traveled to Nebraska on Wednesday, and will finish their regular season at Purdue on Saturday. The weekend game should be a good matchup against the Boilermakers, who are 14-15 overall and 7-9 in the Big Ten.
Clearly, there isn’t a big connection between Kentucky and Minnesota for most basketball fans, but my experience in ‘96 has stayed with me so far for purely superstitious reasons. I felt I jinxed my Gophers by becoming a bandwagon fan when Minnesota had an off year.
Although Kentucky lost in 1997 to Arizona in the final and Minnesota’s NCAA and NIT appearances were later stripped due to academic scandal from 1993-99, I still learned a lesson in joining the masses for the sake of winning: it may come back to bite you and your home team in the butt.