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Column - Gophers bring back madness

It had been so long that I almost forgot what it feels like.

As a University of Minnesota men's basketball fan growing up, I had gotten used to teetering on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament through the 1990s.

The magical year of 1997 when Bobby Jackson carried an entire fan base all the way to the final four is about the only year that I can remember not having to worry on selection Sunday. And technically, that season never happened.

An academic scandal wiped most of that decade from the history books. Not from my memory, though. That Final Four run in 1997 still stands as one of my greatest childhood memories.

My mom and I loved watching the games together. Unfortunately, my dad did not share our passion. His passion was making sure we had enough wood in the basement to keep the house heated during the winter on our farm.

His passion outweighed mine when the Gophers and the Clemson Tigers matched up in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. I watched the first half of that game bundled up outside while unloading wood next to our living-room window. I would have rather dressed in layers for the rest of winter.

Tears flowed when that season finally came to an end against Kentucky in the Final Four. It would be eight years until the Gophers ever sniffed the NCAA Tournament again. The NCAA sanctions for the academic scandal crippled the program for years before it made a surprise tournament appearance in 2005.

Tubby Smith's hiring as the head coach in March of 2007 brought immediate energy back to the program. Smith took over one of the worst teams in Gopher history and with 21 wins through the regular season, has them squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble this year.

Last Saturday, my mom and I were in Williams Arena to watch what we hoped would be a tournament-clinching win against Michigan. The Wolverines instead stormed back from 12 points down in the second half and inched closer to a tournament spot of their own with a three-point win.

I had forgotten what it was like hanging on every shot and every call. Turns out I have not lost my passion for the Gophers even after they dropped off the map for about 10 years.

Anyone who has ever watched a game with me would probably use the words "passion" and "lunacy" interchangeably. I still throw pillows more than I should. I scream at the TV like the players can hear me. I don't cry when they lose anymore. That is a step in the right direction.

I often wish I didn't care so much. It's not normal to experience such highs and lows all because of a college basketball game. I have just accepted that there is nothing I can do about it.

This Sunday, I will head to my parents' house to watch the NCAA Tournament brackets unfold. I will be hanging on every selection for the first time in years. It is not the ideal situation to be in on selection Sunday. But it's a step in the right direction.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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