Mar 13, 2023 - Sports

For Minnesota Gophers fans, March Madness is March sadness

Illustration of a basketball being thrown into a garbage can

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This is usually one of my favorite weeks — the first round of the NCAA March Madness tournament.

Yes, but: I've never been so disinterested.

State of play: The Gophers men's team hasn't qualified for the tournament since 2019 and hasn't made it to the Sweet 16 since 1997.

  • The women's team hasn't made the tournament since 2018 and the Sweet 16 since 2005.

Why it matters: That 1996-1997 Gophers Final Four run turned me into a March Madness fan.

  • The Lindsay Whalen-led teams of the mid-2000s sucked me into the women's tournament.

What's happening: An entire generation of Minnesotans — or at least those who didn't go to an out-of-town Division I school — have seen no such magic.

  • And memories of the Gophers' successes of 20 and 30 years ago are fading for the rest of us.

Threat level: It looks like the problem is only getting worse. In the midst of a last-place finish in the Big Ten, the Gophers' prized recruit, Dennis Evans, backed out of his commitment to play here.

Meanwhile: With new and overdue rules allowing players to cash in on their name, image and likeness (NIL), groups of donors are forming collectives to funnel money to players.

  • It’s hard to imagine the Gophers keeping up with blue blood schools like Kansas, Duke and Kentucky, who have plenty of alumni donors.

Perhaps St. Thomas, which recently jumped into Division I and had a good second season, could provide local fans some excitement. UST certainly has plenty of wealthy alumni.

  • But they won't be eligible for the tournament until 2027.

The bottom line: The NCAA has to figure out how to increase parity in college basketball. Otherwise, for many of us, the tournament feels like it’s being played in a different universe.


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