It’s a funny thing, the feelings you get after witnessing various victories. Some barely register as joy, some bring a little sense of accomplishment and others actually call for a mini celebration. Sometimes you yell, sometimes you just sit back and let the win play out. Other times you’re just excited the entire game. Yet there remains a classification of victory that I hadn’t yet felt as a Gopher fan until December 31st. Sure, there have been last-second heaves to win in the Big Ten tournament, upsets on the road at Indiana and blowout victories at home against Iowa. I’ve certainly been utterly jubilant after many Minnesota wins. But as the buzzer sounded and signaled the end of victory over the Michigan State Spartans I realized that I was experiencing a whole new level of victory – a program changing victory. After the game I didn’t yell in celebration. I didn’t high five anyone. I just sat there with a weird buzz and semi-permanent goosebumps. It was unreal. It was different.
In explaining the importance of the win to my friends and relatives in the faint glow of New Year’s Eve I cautioned that I didn’t want to be too hyperbolic. “Greatest win ever” and “most amazing display of awesomeness I’ve ever seen” isn’t accurate or even a relevant descriptor of Minnesota’s accomplishment on Monday. In fact, as the numbers go the win wasn’t even really an upset. “But,” I said. “What we just saw today was the turning of a new page for this team.”
Still seem a bit hyperbolic? That’s because we’ve never experienced something like this and it feels weird. And at the risk of sounding disgustingly poetic, it feels right. We’ve heard it all season: “This is a different team” and “This is the year they’re going to put it all together.” Yeah, we’d heard that before. We had bought into the hype on more than one occasion and left feeling like fools. We were told this was probably going to be different but still had a hard time buying in. “Wait until conference season starts” I kept telling myself.
But why wouldn’t we feel that way? A game like the one we just witnessed is the EXACT type of game the Gophers have dropped time and again in the past under Tubby Smith. Playing a difficult (but beatable) team at home with a raucous crowd and plenty of talent on the court. That’s what a 6-12 team looks like in the Big Ten. Beat the cupcakes and lose to the top half.
This year, though, with most of the same players as last year, the Gophers stood up to a tough, veteran and overall great Michigan State team at home and solidly beat them. They did what they haven’t been able to do in past years and completely flipped the script. They won a difficult game they were expected to win at home convincingly. That’s not the team we’ve come to know, but it’s the team we have now. These guys finally get it. They aren’t scared, they aren’t taking any crap. They’re the ones pushing people around.
But why is this “program changing”? This isn’t the first time the Gophers have had the talent to do a lot of damage in the Big Ten. In fact, you could argue that in each of the past four years they’ve had the capacity to really make a lot of things happen. But, for one reason or another, they didn’t. By beating Michigan State they proved that they are up to the challenge of facing the conference’s top teams on their own court and will not fold against comparable competition. That’s a huge deviation from where they were even last year and a proof point that they are indeed a changed program.
Now, “program changing” doesn’t mean they are all of a sudden the best team in the conference. It instead signifies that they’ve shown tremendous growth in a short period of time to take on the characteristics of a different team. I wouldn’t put them ahead of Indiana or Michigan or Ohio State, for instance, though they really don’t appear to be that far off. But I will say that it feels really good to sit back and be cautiously optimistic that we’re in for a wild and comparatively successful ride this season.
Am I drinking the Kool-Aid? Hell yeah, I am. And you should too. What’s the point of being a fan if you can’t have fun with the fact that you’re watching something great? Let go and believe in these guys. The Gophers will be better for it.