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FUELING THE FIRE

For the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the biggest day of this season occurred, strangely enough, last March.

The Gophers had gathered at Williams Arena in Minneapolis to watch the broadcast of the NCAA Tournament pairings, confident their strong finish and winning record in the perennially tough Big Ten would merit an at-large tournament berth.

But with each passing bracket, their hopeful glances became blank stares. That's if they could stand to look at the television screen at all. By the end, guard Bobby Jackson buried his head in his hands.

Selection Sunday had become Snub Sunday.

And the rallying cry for the 1996-97 season.

"We put in a lot of hard work in the off-season," said Jackson, a senior. "We promised ourselves that we weren't going to be in the same situation we were last year and not get into the NCAA Tournament."

The Gophers have done more than just make the field, thank you. They received a No. 1 seed and, playing as well as _ if not better than _ more nationally acclaimed teams, have advanced to the Sweet 16.

Minnesota (29-3) meets No. 4 seed Clemson (23-9) tonight in the Midwest Regional semifinals at the Alamodome. No. 2 seed UCLA meets No. 6 Iowa State in the other game.

"The biggest thing in sports is confidence," said Minnesota coach Clem Haskins, the Big Ten coach of the year and Chevrolet National Coach of the Year, and a finalist for numerous other national honors. "You've got to have that confidence. You must believe you can accomplish great things."

Haskins, renowned for tempering expectations for his teams, believed this would be a special team.

And he said so. Last spring, when he was still seething over having to settle for an NIT bid.

"My university and our basketball program didn't get what they deserved, and that was a NCAA berth," he said Wednesday, "and I will never forget that."

All five starters returned from last season's team, which won nine of its final 13 regular-season games to finish 18-10, including a solid 10-6 in the Big Ten. SoHaskins publicly announced his team could:

win 20 games;

win its first Big Ten title since 1982;

reach the NCAA Tournament; and

win a national championship.

"We have not wavered from that from Day One," Haskins said, although he readily admits he'd be lying if he said he believed the Gophers would accomplish all that they have.

Minnesota's 16 wins in the Big Ten is a school record. Its 29 wins shatters the school record of 24, set by the ill-fated 1976-77 squad led by Mychal Thompson. Thompson was declared ineligible, and the team had to forfeit all its wins and forever sport a dubious 0-27 record.

The Gophers are just the third Minnesota team to go undefeated at home (15-0). They also ended the regular season No.

3 in the Associated Press poll, the highest ranking in the program's 101-year history.

"During the season we didn't get a lot of respect or nationwide attention, and that kind of motivated us to play better and do better," said senior center and co-captain Trevor Winter. "We're finally getting recognized for the type of season we've had."

What's remarkable is, this team isn't brimming with household names.

No Duncans. No Vaughns. No Van Horns. No Mercers. No...

Okay. Okay. Jackson was his conference's player of the year and a second-team All-American, but not many folks have heard of the guy outside the Big Ten.

"He hasn't gotten the same notoriety as other players, but he's a very good player," Illinois coach Lon Kruger said.

"We have no individual stars here," Jackson said. "That's what's so good about this team. This is a really good team. Some people don't notice that yet."

Haskins relies on essentially his entire squad, unlike many coaches who prefer a rotation of seven or eight players, especially in the post-season. Nine players average more than 12 minutes.

That's why Jackson can score just 10 points on 3-of-10 shooting and the Golden Gophers still can rout Temple 76-57 in the NCAA's second round.

"In our own right, we have some stars," Haskins said.

Junior guard Eric Harris has quick hands and feet and is one of the nation's better defenders on the ball. Junior forward Sam Jacobson can shoot from the perimeter as well as post up defenders. Sophomore guards Charles Thomas and Quincy Lewis are budding standouts, and Haskins predicts sophomore Courtney James will be one of the premier power forwards before his collegiate career ends.

"I thought Minnesota had a chance to be awfully good because there's nothing they don't have," said Clemson coach Rick Barnes, whose Tigers lost to the Gophers 75-65 in the San Juan Shootout final Dec. 1.

"They can hurt you inside. They can hurt you from the perimeter. They've got guys who can break you down off the dribble, and they defend. When you defend and do have some answers offensively and rebound the way they do, you've got a chance. I think Clem has done an unbelievable job. I voted him national coach of the year."

Getting so many players to curb their egos and embrace his team-first concept is perhaps Haskins' finest skill.

"It's not easy nowadays because every kid you recruit is already driving a Rolls-Royce in his mind and wearing thousand-dollar suits because he wants to be a pro," said Haskins, who eschews going after players who might bolt in a year or two for the NBA.

"Since he was in the seventh grade and hit two free throws in a row and a jump shot occasionally, people had been telling him he's going to be a pro. So it's not easy nowadays to convince a guy he must play a role, he must come in and fit in with a team and sacrifice and play 25 minutes, compared to 40 minutes, to win.

"We've been able to do that at Minnesota because we have quality people, people with character, people with class. When you have that, you can win a lot of games ... And we do have one of the best teams in the country."

This year.

And, the Gophers are here to tell you, last year.

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