UPDATE: OK so the comments quickly pointed out that 1999 really was the WORST year in Gopher Basketball history. I didn't actually even take time to figure out if there was a year worse than 20114. So 1999 was the worst, was 2011 the 2nd worst?
Very little positive can be said about the 2011 calendar year for Gopher basketball and I believe is was probably the worst in the programs history. I've been a Gopher fan all of my life but my memory does not go back beyond the Clem Haskins years so maybe my perspective is a little shallow. But it is hard to imagine a worse 12 months for any college basketball program.
January 2011 - The year started off rather well. The Gophers were11-3 to finish off the year 2010 with wins over North Carolina and West Virginia. The Big Ten season started on the road with a couple of competitive losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State but things were looking up for the Gophers with two of their toughest road games out of the way and a nice nucleus of Al Nolen, Trevor Mbakwe and Blake Hoffarber to go with complimentary guys like Devoe Joseph, Ralph Sampson and Rodney Williams.
The month of January was kind with the Gophers going 5-2 losing only to Purdue and Ohio State, both on the road. But a couple of key dates stand out as the effective ending of the 2010-11 season for Gopher basketball.
- January 5th, 2011 - Devoe Joseph transfers out of the program with just one season left of eligibility. The instant offense was not content coming off the bench and felt like his career would be best served by playing for Oregon. The shooting guard wanted to play point guard but got to play neither because he was stuck behind two seniors who were good at their respective positions.
- January 22nd, 2011 - While playing at Michigan Al Nolen permanently injures his foot and is out for the season. The team manages to win the game (and the next) but this effectively ends the season for the Gophers. Had Joseph decided not to transfer the season and an NCAA Tournament bid likely would have been salvageable but it was not to be so.
February 2011 - in late January we could see the pending train wreck but it hadn't happened yet. In February it all blew up. Seven games in February and one win, but it wasn't just the losses it was the painfully close games that all ended the same. It was the frustration knowing that if we only had our point guard, this team would be winning these games and working towards a higher seed. Three point losses at Indiana, at Penn State and home to Penn State would certainly have been avoided. Losses at home to Illinois and Michigan could have been different and it is hard to forget the eight point lead over Michigan State with five minutes remaining.
March saw three more games and three more losses.
Even with the transfer and injury this team could have won three or four more games. With Al Nolen I think five or six more wins before the Big Ten tournament would have meant 22+ wins on Selection Sunday leaving the only question being what seed we earned. The reality was we were passed over by the NIT and no more games for the Golden Gophers.
Fortunately the rest of the spring and summer were rather uneventful for Gopher Hoops. But the rest of Gopher sports struggled as well. The Baseball team was the conference favorite but floundered to a 13-11 Big Ten record. Hockey finished what was probably their worst season in recent memory. Football goes 3-9 (again) and lost to North Dakota State (again); but we did beat Iowa (again).
Then Hoops season started to get going with the promise of a season of redemption. Trevor Mbakwe was a fringe All-American candidate and was teaming with Ralph Sampson as maybe the best frountcourt in the Big Ten. Rodney Williams was going to have an opportunity to be more a focal point in the offense. A new-look and more athletic backcourt was going to give the Gophers more flexibility and scoring options. This wasn't a Final Four caliber team, but it was capable of helping us forget the end of the 2010-11 season and had the horses to get us back into the NCAA Tournament.
November 2011 - Much like January, this month started off nicely. The Gophers cruised to 4-0 against some decent mid-major competition prior to their Thanksgiving tournament in Orlando. The opponents were not noteworthy but with a roster of new faces (Andre Hollins, Welch, Coleman, Oto and Eliason) any games against live competition was good to give this team an opportunity to gel. The we arrived in Orlando for the Old Spice Classic. The first two games were not pretty but they were wins. The championship saw the Gophers get run out of the gym by Dayton who scored at will against our porous defense. But that wasn't the worst of it. Late in the game Trevor Mbakwe goes down with what we later learn was an ACL tear. Thus ending his Gopher career and by most accounts, effectively ending the Gopher season.
The month ended with a gutty win over a decent Virginia Tech team in the Big Ten / ACC Challenge.
December 2011 - An undefeated month of December is hard to be upset about, the Gophers finished the month 5-1. But these wins are against some very weak competition. One could argue that these are the types of teams we need to be playing as we learn to play without our best player. The Nolen injury in January gave us just a few days to adjust and move on with Big Ten opponents. The timing of Mbakwe's injury gave us the likes of St. Peters, App State and Central Michigan to get things figured out before the 18 game gauntlet of Big Ten opponents.
And we ended the year with a dramatic loss at Illinois missing the front end of a 1-and-1 that would have iced the game. A painful loss that would have been a huge win for the 2011-12 Gophers.
This little exercise is kind of wonky because I'm using the calendar year which spans parts of two different seasons. But basically the awfulness of 2011 rests on the injuries to Nolen and Mbakwe. The former set in motion the worst 11-game stretch I have ever had to watch as the season sunk at the speed of the Titanic (painfully slow and overly dramatic). The latter, I fear will lead to a sub .500 record in the Big Ten and another mediocre season. But there is still hope for 2012. Maybe this team responds well, continues to pull together and surprises us all. Maybe we are reminded that Tubby Smith is a big-time coach who knows what he is doing and the Gophers wade through the Big Ten season with a respectable record that gets them into the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.
But I don't know if any year has or will be as bad for Gopher basketball as was 2011. I'm sure it could have been worse, but those were some injuries that potentially devastated two seasons. On New Year's Eve, let's all raise a glass toasting a 2012 that hopefully surpasses all expectations.