This past season was largely forgettable and maybe it would be best to just move on without looking back. But I think there were reasonable expectations heading into this season that the team would be "more" competitive in the Big Ten and be in position to earn a bid into the NCAA Tournament. Instead the 2014-15 Gophers regressed in the Big Ten in terms of record and standing in spite of the conference being perceived to be down from last year. And an NCAA Tournament bid was so far away we were talking about the NIT bubble on Selection Sunday.
So where did things go wrong? Much has been made of the teams unluckiness, losing several very close games and finishing as the 10th unluckiest team in the country according to KenPom's Luck Rating. In games decided by 5 points or less this team was 2-7 (1-3 at home). Some would argue that unlucky teams are really just not very good teams; and there is probably some truth to that. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Were we a bit unlucky? Sure, but we also could have made some of our own luck and pulled out a few of those close losses. But being unlucky is not the reason this team missed the NCAA Tournament and regressed after returning four starters and 3 of their top 4 scorers. Here are a few reasons why I think this team struggled to get on track and take steps forward this past season.
Loss of Daquein McNeil
Personally I think that this was absolutely the one thing that derailed the season more than any other factor, the one situation that if it had never happened would possibly have changed the outcome of a few games. The sophomore wing played in four games before allegedly making some terrible choices that forced the team to remove him from all team activities. In no way am I decrying the decision to not allow him to play, it was absolutely the right move as McNeil has some very serious allegations in front of him. He should NOT have been a part of this team. But I do believe it was clearly a factor in how this season played out.
As it turns out we had some issues at the wing/SF position. Carlos Morris was able to score for us but his points may have been offset by his poor shot selection and untrustworthy defense. McNeil was getting around 18 minutes per game early in the season and I believe those minutes would have increased as the staff tried to find ways to get the attention of Morris. McNeil would have been one of our best defenders, helping dramatically defending the three which was kind of a problem for this defense. He also was starting to be a steady, offensive compliment at the end of last season.
I actually believe the loss of McNeil could easily have turned at least a few of those close losses into wins.
Lack of production from seniors
Not all of the seniors, I think we got more out of Maurice Walker than was expected. But Elliott Eliason regressed, Deandre Mathieu regressed and Andre Hollins was wildly inconsistent. When you have four seniors you are counting on to produce and they do not, it makes it difficult to know what you are going to get night after night.
As a coach you need reliability and consistency. Knowing what kind of production you can get out of each and every player and for how long you can get that level of production makes everything easier. When you know what you can get, you can plan accordingly. You know how you can tweak gameplans, change defensive assignments, run different sets for specific guys. My assumption is that the staff made offseason plans for the 2014-15 season based on what they thought they could rely on from their seniors. When Matthieu wasn't quite the same and Hollins was so hit/miss...you spend more time fixing what is wrong than you do getting better.
This team was in position to take a step forward after their NIT Championship run the year before. It was supposed to be an experienced team with a solid senior core that was going to get a bit of a boost from a couple new faces. Unfortunately the senior core didn't take a step forward, maybe collectively took a step back, and the team wasn't good enough to make up for their lack of consistency and production.
Lengthy stretches of no scoring
This was a second half norm for the Gophers, particularly in the first half of the Big Ten schedule. This may be somewhat related to the point above about lack of knowing what you are going to get from your seniors, plus having a few of your regular rotation guys playing real minutes in the Big Ten for the first time. But expecting an experienced backcourt to know how to get a basket to slow momentum or maintain a lead seems reasonable. The notion of Mattieu being able to get deep into the lane or Andre making an open shot or knowing when to dump it into the one consistent player we had (Mo Walker) was lacking for big stretches.
This was really an execution issue and could largely be attributed to poor defense. Much of the Gopher offense came from the defense. Far too often the Gopher defense was not very good, allowing teams to score too easily and not being able to generate any offense from the defense.
Inability to close out games, particularly from the free throw line
Similar to the point above, you'll notice many of these are interrelated and compounded each other, but a number of close games were lost while this team finished 12th in the conference in FT%. Unable to score points when it mattered in the second half and an unusually bad season from the free throw line by one of the program's best all-time free throw shooters. Andre Hollins was above an 80% shooter from the line each of his first three seasons and dropped to 75% as a senior. Nate Mason is one the team's best overall shooters but he was strangely just 61% from the line.
This free throw futility was costly, particularly...the Ohio State OT loss (Nate Mason), Michigan road loss (55%), at Nebraska (47%), I quit looking as it was just too painful.
Defensive liabilities both forward spots
I put this one on the shoulders of a couple players. Joey King and Carlos Morris often struggled defensively. For King it is an issue of just not being very quick or athletic. Offensively he is able to contribute and hold his own in the Big Ten. But defensively he is often a mis-match for bigger and/or more athletic forwards around the league. He knows where to be and understands the defensive concepts, but individually it really just isn't fair to him to expect him to be able to guys who are just more athletic and talented. He is pretty good in helpside and may have led the world in attempted charges taken, but that gets me to the second problem.
If King were the only defensive liability we had on the floor, we could probably manage. But when the other forward spot is manned by Carlos Morris...now we have 40% of our defense to worry about. Morris is kind of the opposite of King. He is long and athletic and has the physical tools to play good defense. Unfortunately it was a combination of not being in the right place and lack of effort that created this defensive liability.
These guys both provide value on the floor, and I'm not calling them out as a couple of the worst defenders in Gopher history (We've seen worse). But when they were on the floor together it created far too much pressure on the rest of defense and this is partly why we were forced to play zone fare more than we should have been.
Part of this point relates back to the loss of McNeil, who would certainly have played more minutes and was a very good defender.
Coaching Growing Pains
This one is a bit more subjective than some of the ones above. Through year one of the Pitino Regime I was actually fairly impressed at some of his game by game minor adjustments he made to each game plan. This year I was less impressed. The team did not seem as prepared from game to game and struggled executing throughout the season. Guys just did not seem to be on the same page. And overall I thought we were often out-coached. Typically I hate that term because it is so often overused by people see their team losing or making mistakes and think that term sounds fairly smart. But this year I think there was some truth to it.
My analysis is that in year two, the rest of the league made adjustments to Pitino's Gophers. Pitino didn't counter or adjust to the adjustments.
This is part of the growing pains we will go through with a young coach. He has never been been a head coach at the same place for a second season until this one. Now he has to re-evaluate. What worked in year 1? What didn't work in year 2? What adjustments does he need to make in year 3? How do they continue to develop players?
Each of these on their own is normal and manageable. Combined? They lead to a season that isn't good enough to make the NIT. Next year will have a whole new set of challenges with such a young roster.