I know that I had very high expectations for the Gopher basketball season. You may remember that I once thought a run to the Sweet 16 was entirely realistic and that getting into the NCAA Tournament was a foregone conclusion. Things didn't exactly pan out as expected. But I've been wondering, even with the level of disappointment and inconsistency we have experienced this year were we even the most disappointing team in the Big Ten?
The more I think about it, the more I think we might not even be in the top 3 most disappointing teams in the Big Ten. I'd like to ask that you not take this to the next logical step, which is that I'm OK with our 6th place finish or that we have more legit excuses than these other teams. Because I'm not really OK with how our season has played out and in spite of the setbacks we've had there were several games for the taking that hurt our season and they are inexcusable.
It should also be noted that there were very high expectations for the entire conference this season. Michigan State was returning the vast majority of their roster from a national runner-up last year. And Purdue was returning everyone from a very talented team. Both
are were expected to compete for a national title. Add to that the fact that Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan, Penn State and even Northwestern were returning large percentages of their 2008-09 points. The Big Ten was poised for a big year. Then they went out and won the Big Ten/ACC Challenge for the first time ever. Now expectations are climbing to a level not seen in several years. Talk of getting 7 or even 8 teams into the NCAA Tournament were not all that crazy back in November.
Things changed. With that said here the top 4 most disappointing teams in the Big Ten.
1 - Michigan
A Gopher fan shouldn't be pointing fingers at Michigan as the Wolverines had no problem dismantling the Gophers both times they faced them. But Michigan was 5-11 against the rest of the conference and there is no reason that should have been the case. Looking back to last year the Wolverines snuck into the NCAA Tournament as the 7th team from the Big Ten and earned a 10 seed. They gave #2 Oklahoma all they could handle in the second round, a 1 point game at halftime and a 3 point game with about 6 minutes to go before Blake Griffin took over. The point was that Michigan was playing well to end the season and they were returning their top 5 scorers. Two of those returnees were 1st Team All-Big Ten guard, Manny Harris and 3rd Team All-Big Ten forward Deshawn Simms. Things were looking awfully good for Michigan coming into this year.
A resulting 7-11 Big Ten record (two games worse than a year ago) and 14-16 record has to be the most disappointing season of any Big Ten team.
2 - Northwestern
This isn't so much a reflection of the disappointment from pre-season till now as it is disappointment from the beginning of the Big Ten season. As just about everybody knows, Northwestern is the only BCS school who has never made the NCAA basketball tournament. Things looked very promising for the Wildcats after a very surprising 12-1 start in the non-conference schedule. Sure the schedule wasn't incredibly difficult but they did beat some BCS schools in Iowa State and Stanford. And the highlight of their non-conference was a 14 point win over Notre Dame. Was this going to be the year for Northwestern?
No. 7-11 in the Big Ten was a game worse than a year ago. They have the excuse of losing their best player to injury basically before the season ever got started. Kevin Coble is very good and fits great into the Northwestern system. But they did manage to reach the 12-1 record without him and Wildcat fans had plenty of reasons for optimism with guys likes John Shurna, Michael Thompson and Drew Crawford stepping up and playing well. An eight point win over Purdue is the high point of their Big Ten season but this is still an NIT team hoping that next year will be the year. On the plus side when they expand the tournament to 96 teams next year Northwestern has a decent chance at getting in.
3 - Penn State
One could argue that Minnesota should be here, and I could easily buy that argument. But Penn State fell harder and farther than anybody expected. To start the year it was thought to be a guarantee that Iowa and Indiana would be fighting for the worst record in the Big Ten. Penn State beat them by a full game in the race for last place. Remember that this team was 10-8 in conference last year, 22 total wins and then a run to the NIT Championship. Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle did graduate but Talor Battle was first team All-Big Ten and many thought he'd be in the conversation for Big Ten Player of the Year this year. He is one of the few guys in our league who can take over a game at any point and carry his team to a W.
But starting out the Big Ten season with 12 consecutive losses is a feat that is hard to duplicate, especially with a roster that has some legit talent on it. What bit the Nittany Lions more than anybody, including the Gophers, was their inability to win a close game. Penn State has six conference losses by five points or fewer (and a couple more that are within 10). This team just couldn't quite get something figured out for most of the season and they are far more disappointed with a 3-15 Big Ten finish than a team like Minnesota who didn't live up to expectations but is at least hovering around the NCAA Bubble.
With all of that said, Penn State is playing great right now. This may be the best 11-seed in Big Ten Tournament history. They finished the season 3-3 over their last six games and all three losses were very close to the three teams tied for 1st atop the Big Ten. Lost to Ohio State by eight, lost at Michigan State by two and lost to Purdue by 4. This team is hitting their stride, don't tell them it is far too little, too late.
4 - Minnesota
This season really stings for Gopher basketball fans. We all had high hopes that Minnesota would once again be relevant on the national stage. Stuff happened but as I mentioned above that really is not a very good excuse. You can't count what you never had so to use White or Mbakwe as an excuse is really lame. Losing Nolen really hurt this team but he was in the lineup for the Miami loss, the Indiana loss and the Texas A&M loss. All were very winable. That also is no excuse for leading late but not being able to hold on at home against Michigan State and Purdue, clearly he could have helped but there is no way the current roster should not have been able to hold on to those leads.
But as much as this season stings, it wasn't a total loss. We finished a few games behind where we wanted to be, but we also were competitive in most games even winning some big ones. Beating Ohio State and Wisconsin at home were fun. The Michigan State and Purdue home games resulted in losses but they were a lot of fun to witness. This season is disappointing and in my book it puts more pressure on next year. But I don't think we have fallen quite as far from expectations as the teams I listed above us.
On the flip side I think that Ohio State and Wisconsin deserve some praise for finishing with very strong seasons and arguably surpassing expectations. Had the Gophers not upset both of these schools at Williams Arena they'd be looking at either an outright championship for Ohio State or Wisconsin forcing their way into a four-some at the top of the league. Rule #1 in Big Ten basketball is never underestimate Bo Ryan, I knew that and I ignored it.