No one denies there was a sense of optimism coming into the 2014-2105 season. With 4 returning starters, a young coach on the rise, and post-season experience emanating from most of the roster thanks to a NIT Championship the year before, the team was expected to compete at a high level within the conference and contend for a place in the NCAA Tournament. For a myriad of reasons, those hopes didn’t quite come to fruition.
Approaching the 2015-2016 season, the generally feelings about the Gophers basketball squad have taken a complete 180. Pitino is getting flak for his "coaching regression." The team has become an afterthought amongst the overwhelming positive news that pours out of every orifice of the football program these days. And the incoming recruiting class, while enormous in size and containing a few talented guards, lacks the splash a lot of Gopher fans crave.
So while we had high (relative) expectations for the 2014-2015 squad based on the simple equation of returning starts and the previous season’s success, these expectations were met with a far different reality. And while I personally have no illusions of NCAA Tournament grandeur for the 2015-2016 team, the season may not turn out to be all the doom and gloom after all. The following are five reasons to be optimistic about the 2015-2016 season:
Richard Pitino is a young coach with another year of experience under his belt
It’s crazy to think that Pitino has only coached at the Division I level for a grand total of three years now. Fortunately, he has now experienced two years of Big Ten basketball which contained both "overachieving" (2013-2014) and "underachieving" (2014-2015). He has also been thrust into numerous end game situations and dealt with a wide variety of defensive looks. If young Mr. Pitino has the potential to be as good of a coach as people have been led to believe, then it is only logical to assume that another year will have increased his experience and ability to adapt in-game strategy on the fly. He was also able to take part in a full recruiting cycle and ingrain himself as a more permanent face of the Gopher basketball program. This is an overall net positive and while it might not directly lead to wins or loses, all of the aforementioned points will play a role in building the program to a level of reasonable, sustainable success.
Practice facilities are nearer and nearer to reality
I’m not the resident #FACILITIESMAS expert but it only stands to reason that the closer the University gets to putting shovels in the ground for the Student-Athlete complex that has been discussed, the better things will be for not only the football program but the basketball program as well. Recruits like shiny new things and a solidified finishing date for the basketball-related proposed facilities will most certainly help in recruitment and the overall profile of the program.
The continuation of increasing tempo
Pitino wants Minnesota to turn up the heat and push tempo. He wants to use guard-emphasized lineups and shooters to create offense from defense. This includes forcing turnovers out of a variety of presses and creating layups. It also includes hitting open 3-point shots from penetration. In his first year at the helm, Pitino’s squad finished 257th in Division I in adjusted tempo per KenPom’s rankings. This ranking skyrocketed to 44th the following season. With the influx of Pitino-preferred players it would seem reasonable to expect similar, if not higher, tempo numbers from last year. While every ball-handler on the team will be either a sophomore or freshman, pending a super late addition to the class, Pitino has had time to study and assess these players and believes they match what his system requires. They will be liable to the typical freshman mistakes but they may prove to be better and, in some cases, more talented fits to the system than the likes of Deandre Mathieu, Andre Hollins, and Maverick Ahanmisi. An increase in tempo means the system is working as expected and the younger players are successfully being assimilated into Pitino’s preferred style of play.
Youth could be served
Sure, having this many non-one-and-done underclassmen on a college basketball team is usually a recipe for disaster, especially in the Big Ten. But it could also allow for exponential growth from some of the younger players. Acquiring huge amounts of in-game experience early on could portend to better results in conference play than we have seen the last 8 years or so. If you throw them to the wolves early, by the time February rolls around Jarvis Johnson, Kevin Dorsey, and Dupree McBrayer could have accumulated enough experience that would lead to the team getting better throughout the season (a foreign concept around these parts, I know). And the prospect of one of these young players being an under the radar find from Pitino adds to the excitement. If Jordan Murphy was being recruited by Shaka Smart to play at VCU, personally, I’m very interested and excited to see what he can do in Pitino’s similar system. Throw in the continuing development of Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate and the team is oozing with untapped potential up and down the roster. Massive amounts of freshman mistakes to ensue? Sure. Massive improvement as the season progress? A possibility.
The relatively friendly conference schedule
The final record for the season might not be as ugly as we once assumed, thanks in large part to a rather forgiving conference schedule. Indiana and Illinois are two teams the Gophers play twice who have been projected early on for quality 2015-2016 seasons but outside of that, Minnesota has a manageable draw. They only play Maryland, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan State at home. Those are probably four of the top six teams in the Big Ten for the 2015-2016 season, based on experience and past results. The fact that the young squad won’t have to go into the Kohl Center or the Breslin Center or College Park should relieve some stress on the L column for the season. Doubling up against the likes of Rutgers and Northwestern will help as well. The schedule presents opportunities for wins while they are projected to be scarce.
The above points may be over-simplistic and lack in-depth statistics but the truth of the matter is this: the massive amount of turnover within the roster and lack of experience make the 2015-2016 squad a complete wild card. Not much is expected of this group coming in, which is a fair assessment to make after being completely underwhelmed with how this past season went. But there are still reasons to believe that not all is lost when it comes to the upcoming season.