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What has ailed Gopher basketball?

The Gopher basketball team has struggled this season and much of the fan base is disappointed largely because of the relatively high expectations we all had going into the season. Six months ago there was no question whether or not we would make the NCAA Tournament it was what was a realistic expectation for a seed and how far would we advance. Now? Well, we remain on the bubble of The Bubble and need what would be a surprising strong finish to grab one of the last remaining seeds in the precious NCAA Tournament.

There has been a LOT of talk about what is the major problem with this team. Chemistry, Tubby's offense, lack of improvement by the sophomores, very little production from the freshman class are some of the common themes. These are all somewhat true and they have played into what I think are the tangible reasons the Gophers are very likely headed to an NIT berth.

1 - They can't win the close games.

The things mentioned above like chemistry, lack of an offense that can generate points and lack of improvement by the sophomores play huge roles in this. Some of it is also just plain luck.

Last season the Gophers won a number of key, close games that propelled them into the first round of the the NCAAs. A four-point win at Wisconsin where Lawrence Westbrook solidified his place in the hearts of Gopher fans with a memorable 29 point performance. Just a three-point road win at Iowa that saw us trailing and half and up just one with 5 seconds remaining. How about a win at Indiana by only three points, and it was just a one point differential with 29 seconds to go. And a 5 point win over Wisconsin that was just a two-point game with 29 seconds remaining. Great wins for a team that played great defense and played well together despite their lack of superior athletes.

This season those close wins, especially on the road, have turned into close losses. One point loss to Texas A&M and we had the ball to close out the game. An OT loss at Indiana. A one point loss to Michigan State after leading the entire game. And the three point OT loss to Northwestern have all severely derailed our NCAA hopes. Flip any of those games and our standing amoung the bubble teams is drastically different.

2 - Al Nolen missing more than half of the Big Ten season.

This cannot be understated as I believe he was our best player. Certainly not our best scorer but best passer, best defender and best floor leader. The numbers have backed this up as the 8 games without Absolute Zero has seen our points per game drop, points allowed increase, assists drop, steals drop and turnovers remained relatively flat (0.3 less per game).

Pts Opp Pts Ast Stl TO
Avg W/ Nolen 77.4 63.1 18.2 10.6 13.2
Avg w/o Nolen 68.0 66.6 15.5 4.8 12.9
Differential -9.4 3.6 -2.7 -5.8 -0.3

Al Nolen is not a complete player but based on these numbers he accounted for 14.4 points per game (points allowed and points scored differential). I expected some change but I was really shocked by the amount of steals we've dropped. Even when I compare just the Big Ten games Nolen played to the Big Ten games Nolen missed (so I'm not counting the cupcakes in December), the change in steals is still alarming. In 6 Big Ten games Nolen played we averaged double-digit steals. In the eight games since we haven't recorded more than seven in a game.

His scoring has not been replaced, his assists are not being picked up by anyone and his defense is just not replacable as you can tell by points allowed and steals. I'm not trying to make a case that he should be Big Ten Player of the Year or anything. But I'm trying to drive home the point that his loss has dramatically affected the team's play and results on the floor.

3 - Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe never seeing the floor.

This is the less tangible circumstance that I think has done more harm than anything else this season. This team really doesn't have a power forward. Damian Johnson and Paul Carter are made to be quality small forwards who are capable of playing PF. But in the Big Ten where rebounding and physical play in the paint is the norm, we just don't have anything substantial at PF.

The loss of these guys, who would have added size and athleticism at a key position, is impossible to quantify. But it is my opinion that even just adding Mbakwe is the difference between scrambling for a berth and fighting for a quality seed in the Tournament. White would have even added more as he was supposed to add a scoring punch that this team is sorely missing. He was obviously a freshman and who knows how he would have meshed with Tubby and his teammates so it is harder to say how much of an impact he would have had. But he is clearly talented and would have increased the overall talent that was on the floor each and every night.

I've said this over and over. The 2009-10 Gopher basketball team is just like the 2008-09 version. Some guys are better (Blake Hoffarber) some guys haven't improved enough (Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson and Devoe Joseph). And we finish out the Big Ten season without our starting point guard. Last season we needed a number of things to go right for us to get into the NCAA Tournament, we needed several things to go wrong to keep us out this year. And unfortunately they happened.

With all of that said this team is playing with renewed enthusiasm and passion. Once again they are fun to watch and there is a little bit of excitement heading into a collision with the best team in the Big Ten. The basketball season is a complex story that takes many twists and turns before it is finished. They have much to overcome but don't close the book on these Gophers yet.