Tuesday, August 21, 2018
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Grier taking Gophers home to meet the folks
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Vincent Grier was the team's top scorer this season, averaging just over 18 points per game. He has earned several honors, including a slot on the All Big-Ten conference team and the All Tournament Team. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
The University of Minnesota men's basketball team is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999. They will meet the Iowa State Cyclones in opening round play in Charlotte, North Carolina. Gopher coaches say one of the main reasons for the Gophers return to the big dance is junior Vincent Grier. Grier is a native of Charlotte, and is looking to lead the Gophers to victory in front of his family and friends.

St. Paul, Minn. — A few days before the Gophers board the plane for North Carolina, players and coaches run drills in the familiar confines of Williams Arena. Players rotate through ball-handling and passing exercises at the sound of the buzzer.

Hanging from the rafters in the "old barn" are banners heralding Gopher titles and tournament appearances of days past. Conspicuously absent from the rafters are mention of appearances in 1994, 1995, 1999 and 1997, when the Gophers made it to the Final Four. Those achievements have been officially erased by the NCAA as penalty for the academic cheating scandal that took place under coach Clem Haskins.

Gopher head basketball coach Dan Monson inherited a broken program six years ago. Last season the Gophers finished at the bottom of the Big Ten. Monson says the key to the team's turnaround is the arrival of Vincent Grier.

"Vincent Grier led us into this tournament, and now he's leading us home," says Monson.

Monson is excited to be in the tournament, and he's excited for Grier to play in such a big game in front of his hometown folks.

"That's what the NCAA tournament is. At the end of the season, it's trying to get to the promised land," says Monson. "And that is Vincent's promised land. He really loves Charlotte. It's home. He was born and raised there. So I think it's neat. This has evolved into his team, and he gets to bring his team home."

If Grier is excited about the game, he doesn't show it during practice. He says he's trying to treat it like any other game. But Grier admits there's something a little extra special about playing in his hometown.

It's going to be great to play in front of my family and friends back home. It's going to be emotional for the first two minutes. But once that emotion goes, it's back to business.
- Vincent Grier

"It's going to be great, you know, to get to play in front of my family and friends back home," Grier says. "It's going to be emotional for the first two minutes. But once that emotion goes, it's back to business, like if I was back at Williams Arena or another Big Ten arena."

Grier was the team's top scorer this season, and averaged just over 18 points per game. He has earned several honors, including a spot on the All Big-Ten conference team and the All Tournament Team.

"That means I've played well in the Big Ten so far, and they're just acknowledging my work ethic," says Grier.

Grier came to the Gophers after playing his freshman year at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, and his sophomore year at Dixie State Junior College in Utah.

Grier's coach at Dixie State, Jeff Kidder, says Grier was fun to be around and always had a smile on his face. But when it came to game time, Kidder says Grier was all business. He recalled a game when he asked Grier to step out of his regular role to play a position usually reserved for much bigger, taller players.

"We were going through a little bit of a slump early in the season last year, and we had a very important conference road game," says Kidder. "We were playing a team -- and our post players weren't playing very well. To tell you the kind of versatility Vincent has, we slipped him inside to play on the baseline against the zone. I asked him if he could do it, and he looked me in the eye and said, 'There's no question I can do it.' And he went out and got 34 points."

That season, the Dixie State Rebels went on to win their fourth consecutive conference title.

Grier's decision to leave the heart of college basketball country to transfer to the small Utah college was a bit controversial, says his friend Odell Witherspoon.

"When he left Charlotte, everybody was like, 'Why is he leaving?' and, 'Is that a good move?' And now, people are saying, 'Wow, it was the right decision for him,'" says Witherspoon.

Witherspoon says Grier left Charlotte to play at a school where he'd have an immediate impact. He says that's the same reason Grier decided to come to Minnesota.

Witherspoon says Grier knew coming in to a struggling program that a lot would be expected of him.

"I think he just took everything as a challenge and he's just pretty much stepped up," says Witherspoon. "I think him coming in, they just saw what he could do and was like, 'Let's get on his back and ride it out.'"

The Gophers are no doubt hoping Grier's back will hold up long enough to get them all the way to the tournament finals in St. Louis, Missouri.

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