Following the Gopher's 9-point loss to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee things are looking rather grim for Gopher basketball 2015-16. The loss drops this year's squad to 6-6 overall with the grueling and unapologetic Big Ten schedule looming next. I believe that the consensus for this season was that most of us had little expectations other than to see this young team get better throughout the year and with an infusion of talent coming, hope for next year to be an exciting one was what would carry us through. But with losses to South Dakota, Milwaukee, South Dakota State and very nearly falling to Nebraska-Omaha...there is very real reason for concern. Things this year are going to be much worse than expected, and the list of questions about next year are growing.
According to reports from last night's game the fan base is getting a little more vocal with their frustrations and Richard Pitino is beginning to let his frustrations show. Amelia Rayno's comments following the game...
The fans were more vocal and frustrated as they filed out of the arena. The players were more muted and sullen - sullen in attitude if unrealistically optimistic in their thoughts on how to turn things around. And Minnesota coach Richard Pitino was as salty as ever, chastising one reporter for a question about Jordan Murphy starting for the first time as if he was scolding a child for grabbing candy off the shelf.
I think fan frustration is going to quickly turn into apathy real quick once the Big Ten losses start piling up.
I've heard from multiple places that there is a growing irritability coming from Coach Pitino. Irritable with his players for not doing what he's asking them to do and that is translating to irritability with media when he's asked questions about why his team is struggling so much. Maybe the onus is not all on the players in this case. There is time to correct some things but maybe it starts with methods of teaching, maybe it starts with coaching at this point.
This season is going to be ugly. But how ugly?
How Bad Will This Year Get?
The Gophers sit at 6-6 with some bad losses on their resume. There are no questions about post season hopes, when looking to the end of the season the only real question is how bad will this season be?
The 2006-07 Gophers finished with single-digit wins. A 9-22 record was Dan Monson's final year and he was only around for the first seven games of that season. Prior to that the 1986-87 Gophers, in Clem Haskin's first year, went 9-19. And then you'd have to back to 1967-68 to find the last single-digit win season when John Kundla led the Golden Gophers to a 7-17 record, his final year as the Gopher's head coach.
Can the Gophers get to 10 wins this season? The way things appear today, that seems like a tall order. With the challenge that the Big Ten schedule presents the Gophers, I'm not sure I see four wins out there.
KenPom sees three wins favoring the Gophers currently. Illinois at home, Rutgers at home and Rutgers on the road to finish the Big Ten season. Penn State and Nebraska are beatable teams but we play them each once with both games on the road. All of that to say that this team is on pace to tie the 2006-07 team's record for most losses in a season.
Can we steal a game or two along the way? Sure, it happens. If they get just the right match-ups, have a hot shooting night and catch a better team sleepwalking...we are capable of stealing a win. I don't think there is any question that this team is more talented than what we are seeing on display currently.
Will We See Improvement?
So far, unfortunately I haven't seen anything that would indicate this to be true. Certainly they will not do such a thing, but forgetting about wins/losses at this point and just starting over with teaching exactly what they want to see and how they want to execute might not be a bad idea. Forget scouting, forget individual game-plans to beat other teams. Focus on doing what you do and do it better each day. Over-simplifying? Yes. But this team doesn't know what it does well and it doesn't execute what it is trying to do. Before you can worry about anybody else, you have to know who you are and what you do well.
We sit at 216th nationally in defensive efficiency. That is going to get significantly worse as we start to face really good teams night after night. Expect to see us routinely give up 1.1 to 1.2 points per possession over the next 18 games. Since 2002 the worst the Gophers have finished in this category is 144th. I foresee us breaking that dubious record. Rebounding? Still sitting around 200th nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. That too is only going to get worse as we face better teams. Improvement? I wouldn't know where to begin without starting over from scratch.
Individually? I've personally seen enough of Buggs and Morris. I know they'll continue to play but this team is better when their minutes are limited. They often hurt more than they help on both ends of the floor. Make it clear to the young guys that if you don't do what is asked on both ends of the floor...you will be sitting. Are we going to see either of them improve throughout the rest of the season? I doubt it.
In the paint, this team is a mess. And improvement is absolutely necessary. Amelia talked after the game about how this team has zero confidence to pass the ball inside. Konate and Gaston Diedhiou have very limited ability to score when they do get the ball inside. And this is a huge problem because we are struggling to score from the outside. There is just nobody who can relieve the pressure on our shooters by getting some easy baskets in the paint. Some improvement would be great here but I just don't see it.
Are There Any Bright Spots?
Yes, Jordan Murphy has been a huge surprise and looks like he is going to be a really fun Gopher to watch over his four seasons. He works hard, he is a beast on the boards and will get better offensively. A double-double machine at this early stage of his career! I've impressed and excited to watch him develop. If he's not starting the rest of the season...then there are some real problems with the decision making up top.
Kevin Dorsey looks to be legit as well. I'm not worried about his shooting. He's a true freshman acclimating to
Big Ten caliber Division I basketball, I'm willing to give him some time to let his shot catch up. And Dupree McBrayer is coming along nicely as well, he may even be a pretty good defender. Those three kids are playing well and they are the ones I'm watching closely to see how they improve throughout the year.
I had higher hopes for Nate Mason to step up into being a scoring leader for this team but that may not be his strength and maybe he's just more of a floor leader. He's clearly scoring, but isn't exactly a guy you can count on to carry the load. That is fine and as some of these other guys grow, hopefully they can all find some synergies on the floor. An 18 ppg kind of guy he will not be, but 12 points and 5 assists is perfectly acceptable. He's having a good season, no complaints.
What Will This Mean for Next Year?
I'm gonna be honest, I'm not very optimistic about next year either. Everyone loves to look at how this is a young roster, we have some very nice talent coming in next year and things will be so much better next season. But lets be honest here, talent isn't the problem, at least not during the non-conference part of the season. We are young and we have some mismatched pieces. But we have more talent than South Dakota (just lost to Illinois by 12 and UNLV by 35!) and Milwaukee. We are undoubtedly talented enough that we shouldn't give up 90+ to Omaha. Talent, thus far, is not the problem.
Lack of enough talent was expected to keep us from the NCAA Tournament this year. But our current 6-6 record in a soft non-conference schedule is more on execution and understanding the game than it is about a dearth of talent.
So how do I feel about next year? I believe we will be more talented. But unless this team learns how to play better defense and until they learn how to execute an offense...the results will be only slightly better.
We are adding a lot next year and there are three pieces that are going to be huge. Amir Coffey will step in giving the Gophers a threat that opposing teams will have to account for. He won't be LeBron James out there, please keep expectations a little realistic, but he will be a level of player that we don't currently have. Keep in mind that he is going to be a true freshman and while he is a high-end addition, he isn't a lottery pick. He'll be key but he isn't a savior.
Next we add Reggie Lynch after he sits out this year as a transfer. A legit big man who is going to be a huge help on the defensive end. Offensively he is far from polished but should be an upgrade over Bakary Konate. Currently the team gets zero offensive production on the inside while Konate struggles to be an impact player on the defensive side as well. Lynch should start at center and be a shot-blocking presence from day 1. This will help.
Thirdly the addition of Michael Hurt is going to be a bigger boost than many realize. Perhaps you've noticed that this team struggles mightily to shoot the ball. Well that is Hurt's specialty. He is a more true fit at a forward spot than Joey King and should stretch the defense. He won't be starting but he will be an added weapon off the bench to give this team some help offensively.
Beyond those three, you may get some help from Eric Curry as a true PF. And maybe Davonte Fitzgerald is a dangerous offensive weapon, assuming he is not a volume shooter like Carlos Morris and he learns to play within the offense. Those two may give you some help but I'm expecting the three mentioned above to be the biggest impact players.
So what does that all mean? Unfortunately unless this team collectively learns to play defense, none of it will matter much. If you struggle to really execute offensively at a high level, where opposing defenses have a hard time slowing you down, then you have to generate some offense with a your defense. Currently we are below-average at both. At the Big Ten level you cannot get by on talent alone (unless you are bringing in Kentucky/Louisville level talent). This team will be more talented next year but this coaching staff has to do a significantly better job at teaching them how they want to execute on both ends of the floor.
This article really puts you in a festive mood doesn't it? Enjoy your Holidays, Gopher basketball will be back eventually. This year may just be a struggle for all of us.