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Minnesota Basketball: Where Do We Go From Here?

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The 2015-2016 season has turned into a disaster. But what can we glean from the wreckage that is this season?

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers stink. I am only blunt because, at the time of writing/typing this, I couldn't come up with anything more clever or, frankly, more accurate.

This isn't a world-shattering statement. Gopher Nation has known since about the beginning of December that this team wasn't going much of anywhere this season. However, the pure potency of the stench emanating from Williams Arena and wafting its way throughout Dinkytown this winter couldn't have been understood until about this point. The Gophers rank 199th in KenPom, their worst ranking since the advent of the system during the 2001-2002 season. They are posting their 4th worst SRS (simple rating system) metric since College Basketball Reference has been able to track the stat 65 seasons ago. They are nearly impossible to watch on a game-to-game basis. Player improvement has been hard to find. Coaching improvement, from top to bottom, has been difficult to identify and/or quantify. Even the cheeriest of optimists, like myself, are grasping at the slimmest of straws to try to redeem this dark time.

Since we are avoiding sugar-coating it, it's possible we are witnessing the worst season in the modern history (since the advent of the NCAA Tournament in 1939) of Gopher basketball.

I said at the beginning of the season that I knew it was going to be a tough go this year but that as long as the team showed improvement from the beginning of the season to the end, I'd be mostly pleased. Well, considering we beat Clemson (57th in KenPom) at the beginning of the season only to lose to Northwestern (87th in KenPom) twice by a combined margin of 49 points in the months of January and February, improvement doesn't appear to be happening, at least on the surface. Maybe the younger players are improving in practice and it hasn't manifested itself during Big Ten play. Perhaps the younger players are just a few plays away from that magical moment where it "clicks" for them. It's possible that during this weekend, with a break from the Big Ten schedule, Jordan Murphy found away to avoid foul trouble. But these things, given what we know about this team so far, seem unlikely to occur overnight.

When the season comes to a close, most likely in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis on March 9th, things will no doubt start becoming more interesting. Will Pitino lose his job? Since Minnesota currently doesn't have a full-time athletic director, prevailing wisdom would indicate that he won't. So let us assume Richard Pitino will be back for year four at the University of Minnesota. Where does that leave us for 2016-2017?

The following is under the assumption that there will be no surprises to the composition of the roster for next season.

Non-Returning Players

Joey King and Carlos Morris are the team's two seniors. While they are, percentage wise, the top two outside shooting threats on a team that desperately needs shooters, their short-comings in other areas have always hindered the development of the team while they are on the floor. For King, he is a huge liability on defense. Regardless of his high 3-point and free throw percentages, his inability to defend and rebound with any consistency at the power forward position has made him a non-factor in many Big Ten games. For Morris, his lack of consistency and poor shot selection limit his effectiveness. While their efforts the last few seasons are appreciated, outside of their ability to shoot from three, the pair probably won't be missed as much as other departing seniors in recent years a la Austin Hollins.

Incoming Transfers

Reggie Lynch and Davonte Fitzgerald will provide some length, athleticism, and hopefully, strong defensive abilities. Both lack long-range shooting in their set of skills with Lynch a known-quantity as a post presence and Fitzgerald along a similar ilk of Morris in the chucking category (that is, at least according to the stats he accumulated at Texas A&M). So while they won't heal the ills of the Gopher offense, they may be the lengthy, rangy type of players necessary to increase the effectiveness of the Gopher defense. Lynch placed 4th and 3rd in the always competitive Missouri Valley Conference in defensive rating in his two years at Illinois State thanks in large part to his fantastic block percentage that ranked 1st in the entire NCAA in both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons. He will have an instant impact on defense whether as a power forward or an undersized center.

Incoming Freshman

The much-anticipated recruiting class of 2016 includes several interesting players. Amir Coffey, a point forward type with a variety of skills, is seen as a player who will have an immediate impact on the proceedings and provide scoring for the Gophers from the moment he sets foot on campus. Michael Hurt has been dominating his senior year of high school, posting impressive totals in points, rebounds, and assists as a do-everything wing player. In college, it is my hope that he becomes a threat from the outside while simultaneously being able to guard the opposing team's 3-spot on defense. Last, but not least, Eric Curry, a highly skilled post player with high-level athleticism, will be an excellent addition to the Gopher front court. He should be able to provide quality minutes off the bench behind the likes of Lynch and a hopefully improved Bakary Konate.

Important Returning Players

I'll briefly discuss those players who are currently receiving minutes this year that I believe will accumulate significant playing time next year as well.

The backcourt for the 2016-2017 will still be very young with Nate Mason, Kevin Dorsey, and Dupree McBrayer expected to return and garner most of the playing time at the guard spots. Charles Buggs will still be around (seems like he's been here forever, right?) to soak up minutes at the three and four spots and show flashes of awesome athleticism mixed in with frustrating defense and lapses in judgement. Jordan Murphy, probably the player people are currently most excited about for the future, will no doubt play a huge factor at the three and four spots. If he could shoot 500 three-pointers everyday this summer, that would be most awesome. Bakary Konate will most likely be the starting center with Gaston Diedhiou providing bench depth but probably nothing more. The guards, with one more off season under their belts, will hopefully have improved their decision making and ability to finish around the rim. One of the three previously mentioned also needs to live in the gym this summer and become a three-point shooter. This isn't impossible to accomplish. If Mason plays more off the ball next year, he could conceivably become the marksmen the Gopher offense desperately needs. However, that relies on Dorsey improving his decision-making and ability to handle the ball to become a cromulent starting point guard.

Possible Lineup Combinations

Lineup A "more experienced"

Position Player
PG Kevin Dorsey
SG Nate Mason
SF Jordan Murphy
PF Reggie Lynch
C Bakary Konate

Lineup B "let the kids play!/our team stunk last year so let's switch it up!"

Position Player
PG Kevin Dorsey
SG Michael Hurt
SF Amir Coffey
PF Jordan Murphy
C Reggie Lynch

Lineup C "Pure havoc defense but oh my goodness the shooting is turrible"

Position Player
PG Kevin Dorsey
SG Dupree McBrayer
SF Jordan Murphy
PF Davonte Fitzgerald
C Reggie Lynch

Lineup D "I think this is the probable two/three deep without seeing the kids and transfers play yet"

Position Starter Backup
PG Kevin Dorsey Nate Mason
SG Nate Mason Dupree McBrayer/Amir Coffey
SF Jordan Murphy Amir Coffey/Michael Hurt
PF Reggie Lynch Davonte Fitzgerald/Eric Curry
C Bakary Konate Gaston Diedhiou

Conclusions

Honestly, as crazy as it sounds, I'm really excited for next year. My hope is that Coach Pitino is still acclimating to the Big Ten. I know it's been three years but maybe, in year four, he'll have all the kinks ironed out as far as in-game strategy is concerned and he'll better understand what preparations are required to compete during the vigorous conference schedule. With athletes up and down the roster at every position, he might be able to unleash more pressure defense and allow his players to improvise on offense more often because half-court sets do not appear to be a strength for this roster or coaching staff. If Coffey can make an immediate impact and Lynch continues to block shots at a nationally elite rate, you could see a +10 jump in the win column for the 2016-2017 season. These are some key things that need to happen between now and then if Pitino is going to keep his job beyond next season:

  • Identify three-point shooters on the team and work with them in the off season to improve their shooting. The only way opposing teams won't sag is if the Gophers can find reliable shooters. I believe this could be some combination of Nate Mason (in the off-guard role), Michael Hurt, and Davonte Fitzgerald, if he can correctly pick and chose his spots.
  • Work with Bakary Konate on his defensive technique. Konate will never be much of a offensive force. But I think if he becomes a defensive specialist capable of owning the defensive boards and influencing opponents shots, a combination of him and Lynch down low will do wonders for the Gopher defense
  • Have Jordan Murphy take 500 three-point shots a day and work with him on foul avoidance. His post game is impressive for being so undersized. If he can add a reliable three-point shot to his game, he could become some kind of monster.

The schedule hasn't been released but it's safe to say that next year's Gopher squad will have a solid chance to tally more wins than this current edition.

What do you think about next year's prospects?

What should be the starting lineup next year?

Will you be back for more after the tire fire of the 2015-2016 season?