Their paths crossed more than 20 years ago, for one women's basketball season. Brenda Frese was hired to coach the Gophers in 2001, inheriting a team that had won one Big Ten Conference game the year before led by a freshman point guard named Lindsay Whalen.
In one year the Gophers went from 8-20 and in 10th place to 22-8 and in second.
And then Frese was gone, to Maryland.
Two years later Minnesota was in the Final Four. Two years after that, Maryland won the NCAA title.
Frese, still at Maryland, was talking Friday about the sudden end of Whalen's five-year tenure as Gophers coach.
Too soon, Frese said.
"I was disappointed in the timing of it,'' she said. "I've reached out to Lindsay. I've talked to her by text. Her and her staff, they've got a young core of kids in there right now, that freshman class. I thought she'd have a little more time to develop it.''
That was a common theme among coaches at the Big Ten tournament this week — too soon. That a first-time coach learning on the job through the rise of NIL, the arrival of the NCAA's transfer portal and the chilling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic deserved more time, the right to steer a strong freshman class into its sophomore year.
Starting essentially from scratch, Whalen made recruiting inroads within the state that resulted in a 2022 class that ranked 10th nationally by ESPN and included Mara Braun, Mallory Heyer, Nia Holloway and Amaya Battle. Minnesota remains a hotbed for high school talent. Minnesotans such as Sara Scalia, Adalia McKenzie and Monika Czinano are making impacts at the Big Ten tournament as well as nationally.
"Lindsay had a lot of connections with the state,'' said Nick Storm, founder and co-director of the Minnesota Fury girls basketball AAU program.
"I hope they don't have to start over, from scratch,'' said Bill Larson, director of North Tartan AAU.
On this there was consensus among coaches at Target Center this weekend. Despite recent difficult seasons, the Gophers job is a good one.
"It's a very attractive job,'' Frese said, "[if] you can get the best players in the state of Minnesota and the surrounding area to stay home. You see where the Big Ten is right now and all the great teams. So this is where recruits want to play.''
Yet another rebuild?
Storm was sitting in his office Thursday, watching the Big Ten tournament when the news broke:
"Shocking,'' he said. Storm, like many others, felt Whalen would get another season to see how the much-hyped 2022 recruiting class would improve as sophomores despite the Gophers' 11-19 season, which included a 4-14 conference mark.
Heyer played for the Fury. Braun and Holloway played for North Tartan, Battle for the Metro Stars.
"I would have liked to have seen her have a chance to work with those kids one more year,'' Storm said.
Now Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle is looking for Whalen's successor, and it's unclear what that new coach will inherit.
Will that much-heralded 2022 class stick together and stick it out? Or will they leave? All four players or their families tweeted heartfelt reactions to Whalen leaving but have yet to announce any decision.
What about redshirt freshman Katie Borowicz? Or sophomore center Rose Micheaux, whose jump from her first to second seasons was among the best in the conference? Or starter Maggie Czinano? Or prized transfer center Sophie Hart?
Or an incoming freshman class that included players from Canada and the Czech Republic, Washington state and Maple Grove guard Kennedy Klick?
Klick, so far, is the only one to have announced a decision — to stay with her commitment.
The Gophers' 2022-23 roster had no juniors on it. Only freshmen and sophomores or seniors and grad students, five of whose careers finished in Minnesota's first-round loss in the Big Ten tournament.
The new coach could either inherit a group of highly regarded freshmen with a year of experience looking to make a jump in year two, have back the vast majority of this year's scoring … or be forced to rebuild a roster ravaged by trips to the NCAA transfer portal for a second straight year.
"I understand that,'' Coyle said.
"I was hoping this wouldn't happen this year, by any means,'' Larson said. "What stinks, too, is that you fight through Covid — and it's hard to recruit through that — you try to build a program, relationships. When she finally did, she got a great recruiting class. … I hope they don't have to start over.''
An attractive job?
Coyle talked about the lack of historical, sustained success by both the men's and women's basketball programs and his determination to change that, which only makes this hire so important.
But does that untapped potential make this a job an attractive one? Coyle on Thursday said, judging by the calls he's gotten, yes.
The new coach will be asked to raise the profile of the Gophers in one of the deepest conferences in the country.
"I think playing in the Big Ten in and of itself makes pretty much any job [in the conference] desirable,'' Rutgers first-year coach Coquese Washington said. "I think it absolutely will be.''
After leading Dayton to a 127-50 record and NCAA tournament berths in five of her six seasons there, Shauna Green moved to Illinois this season. She inherited a team that was 7-77 in Big Ten play since 2017. Augmenting her roster with the NCAA transfer portal, she led the Illini to a 22-9 record and will likely receive an NCAA bid next week. She knows what can be done in the conference.
"Look, I took a job that no one thought was attractive,'' Green said. "I believe, if you believe in yourself and if you have great administration and you have people that are going to put the resources into it, you can win anywhere if you bet on yourself. I think [the Minnesota position is] a great job. I thought Lindsay did a great job through her tenure.''
Starts at home
One thing the new coach will need to do: Mine Minnesota talent.
"For a long time with a couple of coaching staffs there was not much of a relationship between the women's Gophers staff and local AAU and high school people,'' said Prep Hoops recruiting analyst Grant McGinnis. "Lindsay came in and immediately changed that.''
Whalen had name recognition, of course. But, McGinnis noted, she also worked very hard, as did her staff, to build relationships. "Honestly, I think the last couple years, really the fruits of all that labor for [Whalen's] staff really paid off.''
And that has to continue.
"If you bring someone in who has no connections in Minnesota you're going back to ground zero again,'' McGinnis said. "And that would be really, really unfortunate in my view.''
Time will tell.
"Lindsay had a lot of connections with the state,'' Storm said. "It is important for the new hire to make similar connections early, to avoid the mistakes of the staffs that came before Lindsay.''
Said Larson: "There was a nice little pipeline going. Hopefully they will establish that again.''