Coach Tubby Smith’s Minnesota Gophers are 11-3 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten. Minnesota fans are expecting that this year’s squad will be making its second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament and a serious run at a Big Ten title.
The start of this decade for the Minnesota program has gone very well for the Gophers. The last decade was a more difficult period.
During the past decade, Minnesota finished in the top half of the division only once and made just two appearances in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers were 163-135 overall and 60-88 in the Big Ten during the past ten years.
While the past decade did not provide Gopher fans with many opportunities to relish victories, fans did see many outstanding players turn in great performances.
Minnesota players this past decade received All-American consideration, several were selected to All Big Ten teams, and one turned in the best single statistical season by a freshman player in the history of the Big Ten.
The five Gopher players, in alphabetical order, that stood above the rest for me during the past decade were:
Grier transferred to Minnesota from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2003 and provided instant offense leading the Gophers in scoring for two consecutive seasons. Grier did not have a beautiful jump shot but what he did have was an uncanny ability to score in traffic, a determination not to be denied and a willingness to take the last shot.
In the 2005 season, Grier averaged 17.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.0 steals per game. In his first season in the Big Ten, he was named to the 2005 All-Big Ten First Team.
The 2005 squad led by Grier went 21-10 overall and 10-6 in the Big Ten. The Gophers were invited to the NCAA tournament but lost to the Iowa State Cyclones in the first round.
In the 2006 season, Grier battled small but nagging injuries. Despite the setbacks, he still managed to play in 25 games. Grier averaged 15.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.3 steals a game and was named to the 2006 All-Big Ten Third Team. The 2006 squad finished the year playing in the NIT tournament with a 16-15 record.
Grier was initially drafted by the Miami Heat in 2006 but was not able to earn anything more than a short stay in the league. He came to camp with the Washington Wizards before the start of the present NBA season.
Grier is currently playing in Europe.
Expectations were high for Humphries coming out of local Hopkins high school as he was one of ten finalists for the 2003 Naismith Prep Player of the Year. Humphries originally committed to Duke but later opted to enroll at Minnesota.
Humphries had arguably the best freshman season of any player in Big Ten history. If he had stayed a couple of more seasons in maroon and gold, Dan Monson might still be coaching the Golden Gophers instead of Long Beach State.
Humphries is the only freshman in the history of the Big Ten to lead the conference in scoring and rebounding. He averaged 21.7 points and 10.1 points per game and set the Minnesota single season record for points for a freshman with 629.
He was consistent in that he scored double figures in every game he played and hauled ten or more rebounds in sixteen games.
Humphries, however, did not learn how to pass out of double teams as he averaged less than one assist per game and more than four turnovers per game. The assist to turnover ratio of 1:4 is the worst for any Gopher during the decade.
Minnesota finished 12-18 overall and 3-13 in the Big Ten. The Gophers failed to make any post season tournament.
Coaches in the Big Ten and around the country, however, weren’t dismayed by Humphries' lack of assists as he was named 2004 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, 2004 First Team All-Big Ten, and 2004 Honorable Mention All American.
Humphries left for the NBA after playing only one year. He is currently playing for the Utah Jazz.
One of the most decorated prep players in Minnesota history, McKenzie won four straight state high school basketball championships at Minneapolis Henry. McKenzie transferred to Minnesota after spending his first two years of college ball at Oklahoma with Kelvin Sampson.
McKenzie averaged 15 points in 2007 and 12 in 2008. He was a solid playmaker, controlling the tempo, dishing out assists, and stretching defenses, shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc for his career. McKenzie connected on a school record 79 three pointers in 2008. His single game record of seven three-pointers in a game was broken last month by Blake Hoffarber against Northern Illinois.
McKenzie made the most of his limited time in the Minnesota program, receiving Honorable Mention All-Big Ten recognition in 2007, and was subsequently named All-Big Ten Third Team in 2008.
McKenzie comes from a basketball rich family. His dad, Larry Sr., coached him in high school and his uncle Stan played in the NBA for Phoenix and Portland. Larry is currently playing professional basketball in Europe.
The 6’11, 215-pound shooting star from Duluth made an immediate impact as he was the first Gopher to ever be named Big Ten Freshman of the Year when he won the award in 2002. In his first year, Rickert averaged 15 points and five rebounds per game. He was named to the 2002 All-Big Ten Second Team.
Rickert’s was more of a finesse game as he did most of his damage on jumpers from the corner. Power forwards were thus exposed on the wing trying to guard him.
Rickert, however, could also put the ball on the floor as he had better than average dribbling skills. When teams went small on him, Rickert was comfortable backing down his smaller opponent.
In 2003, Rickert followed up his freshman year with a solid sophomore campaign, averaging 16 points and six rebounds per game.
Coaches in the Big Ten liked how Rickert had improved his game as they named him to the 2003 All-Big Ten First Team.
Rickert left school early believing he would be drafted in the first round; however he lasted until late into the second round when he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Rickert’s career with the Timberwolves was brief as he reportedly got into a heated argument with Kevin “Big Ticket” Garnett.
Rickert is currently playing professional basketball in Australia.
Every successful team needs a scrappy player who is willing to do the dirty work, hustle on every play and push the star players out of their comfort zone during practice. Rychart’s game was not flashy, but he was effective and consistent.
Dusty Rychart: the Gophers' poster boy for hard work and determination in the last decade.
Rychart was a walk-on from Grand Rapids, Minnesota who made the most of his opportunity to play in the Big Ten. He was a model of hard work and consistency. In 2000 he averaged 11.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists. In 2001 he averaged 14.6, 7.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists. In 2002 Rychart averaged 13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and two assists.
When you add in the effort that Rychart showed on the defensive end of the court, you understand why coaches in the Big Ten appreciated his game so much that they named him to the All-Big Ten Third Team in 2003.
Rychart current plays basketball professionally in Australia.
Who was the best Minnesota player this decade?
All Gopher fans enjoyed watching Rychart play because of the effort he gave the team every time he stepped on the court. He is the type of player that every coach wants to have on his or her team. However, on a level of physical talent, Rychart is not in the same class as the other candidates and is number five on the list for me.
Number four on my list is McKenzie. McKenzie was a solid defender, especially when playing in an up tempo trapping defensive scheme and his defense keeps him in the conversation. However, while he was a solid offensive player, McKenzie was not quite in the same category as the three other players on the offensive end; he was not able to consistently create his own shot.
A compelling case for the three remaining players, as each was once voted an All Big Ten First Team player.
Rick Rickert is third on my list. Rickert was a solid scorer in the Big Ten, shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc and 44 percent from the field. However, he rarely took over a game with his scoring and his assist to turnover ratio of .55 was not as good as Grier’s .88 ratio.
Rickert’s defense was nothing very special as he was not able to consistently use his height to intimidate opposing players or dominate the glass. The 6’11" Rickert averaged less than one block per game and only 6.2 rebounds in the year he was voted the First Team in the Big Ten. In comparison, the 6’8" Humphries had more block shots than Rickert and averaged almost four more rebounds per game.
The choice between Humphries and Grier is difficult.
Statistically, Humphries had one of the best years (if not the best) any freshman player ever had in the Big Ten as he led the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding.
Grier led the Gophers in scoring two consecutive seasons and led Minnesota to their only NCAA tournament appearance under Coach Dan Monson.
Humphries shot better from beyond arc, shooting 34 percent to Grier’s 25 percent in the year that each was voted All Big Ten First Team. Grier, however, was a better shooter from the floor as he shot 47 percent to Humphries' 44 percent in the year that each was voted All Big Ten First Team.
Free throw shooting is awash as both players shot 74 percent from the free throw line.
The one statistic that separates the two players is the assists each was able to generate...or in the case of Humphries, to not generate.
Humphries averaged less than one assist per game and had four times as many turnovers as he did assists. Some fans referred to him occasionally as the “black hole” as passes would go in to him from his teammates but none would go out.
While there are probably several reasons why the 2004 Gophers struggled and went 12-18, one was because their star player could not figure out how to get more assists to his teammates.
In 2005, Minnesota went 21-11 and made its only NCAA tournament appearance.
In 2005, Grier averaged nearly 2.5 assists per game. While there are more reasons for Minnesota making the NCAA tournament beyond Grier’s ability to find his teammates, his assists were a factor in the Gophers winning more games.
While Grier was not as blessed with the physical gifts of Humphries, his ability to elevate the game of his teammates can’t be overlooked.
My vote for Gopher player of the decade is Vincent Grier.