Wow. Now THAT was a Minnesota sports season. It’s not often you get to scratch a masochistic itch like that but, man, this should be front and center in the dictionary when you look up Gopher Fandom. I mean, it had it all — preseason injuries, IN-season injuries, sexual assault allegations, suspensions, leg infections, shoulder surgeries, pre-season AND in-season hype, enormous losing streaks and general apathy. This is it right here, folks. And the season ended in frickin’ FEBRUARY. That deserves a round of applause.
I’ll be honest. I was extremely hyped for this season, and for good reason. The team found its footing late last year and, even with an upset in the NCAA Tournament to Middle Tennessee State, it was clear that they were onto something. Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy took huge leaps, Reggie Lynch was a defensive godsend, Eric Curry was an epiphany, and things were flowing. Add in Isaiah Washington and things were looking up. They 100% deserved the preseason hype and top-15 ranking they entered the season with, and actually lived up to that billing early on, despite some depth issues. I fully believe that, all else equal, this was a team that should have contended for a Big Ten title. Of course, we’ll never know for sure, but victories over Providence, Alabama and a very well-played game against Miami indicated that they were on the right track. Murphy advanced so much in one offseason that he probably would’ve been a Wooden Award finalist with a better record. But, we all know how it ended. With a loss to Rutgers in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. But it was over for all intents and purposes on January 4th.
You know what pains me the most? It’s the uniformed takes from people outside of Gopher Nation who only see the preseason top 15 ranking and then a 4-14 conference record. There was a lot of “See, I KNEW Minnesota was overrated. Look at how bad they actually are!” Ummm, remember when the team basically lost it’s entire starting lineup? Let’s add an asterisk there, people.
But more frustrating is that this is the second throwaway season in three years for the Gophers. Coming off such a successful (and surprising) 2016-17 year, people were jacked to see where a veteran-laden team could go, and the initial success did nothing to change that perception. That made the collapse all the more intense. To go from sleeper Final Four aspirations to losing in the first round of the conference tournament is the ultimate form of whiplash, and is disorienting, even for a pained fanbase like ours.
But let’s address the elephant in the room — Richard Pitino and the hot seat. I think there’s a lot of unfairly placed blame being placed at his feet with this “down” season. Yes, the Gophers sucked it up in a major way after things went to hell, and the coach is always going to be the lightning rod during a bad season. But I think it’s aggressive to imply that performance this season is somehow tied to his inability to coach. Depth was always going to be a concern this season, but no coach can plan for four of his top six best players to be unavailable all at once. Heck, even Tom Izzo commiserated with Pitino’s plight. No one is going to win any games trotting out a starting lineup with Davonte Fitzgerald and Gaston Diedhiou. No one.
What does that leave Pitino? Well, it’s a shame we couldn’t see him at the helm with a full complement of players this year. Let’s not forget that he was B1G Coach of the Year just a season ago and did some really good things with his own players. On paper, sure, he’s not blowing anyone away, but there’s a lot of unwritten context that goes along with it, as in, much of this season’s spiral was out of his control. If he has another bad year next year with a full squad I think we ought to reevaluate, but you’ve gotta give the guy a gimme this year, as frustrating as that is.
I think at the end of the day I feel most for Nate Mason. Here’s a guy who has now taken it on the chin in three of his four years as a Gopher for reasons totally out of his control. Imagine going into your senior season ready to really take things to the next level, only to be left with what is a used diaper of a season. Mason goes down as one of the better players the program has ever had, and it’s too bad his amazing career will be swallowed up by some of the more frustrating seasons in recent memory. He really deserved better than that.
It’s going to be a long offseason, and even with a better season expected next year, it’s going to take a while to get over the missed opportunity Minnesota had this year. Unfortunately what was supposed to be a pinnacle turned into a pothole.
- It’s unconscionable that Jordan Murphy wasn’t named to the All-B1G first team. The dude averaged a double-double, was sixth in the conference in scoring and led the B1G in rebounding by a full TWO REBOUNDS PER GAME. He was the only player to average double digit rebounds. Top 20 in steals per game? Check. Led the conference in offensive rebounds? Yep. He should be on the short list for conference player of the year. Unbelievable.
- Oh, and Nate Mason as a conference honorable mention? GTFO. He was a first-teamer last season and had a BETTER year this year. I can’t even.
- Isaiah Washington was a flash point this year. He had peaks and valleys, which is expected of a freshman. The hype didn’t match the performance people expected, but the growth was evident, and by the end of the season he was regularly scoring in double figures. He’s not far from being a very good player.
- To be honest, I expected a little more from Jamir Harris. He has the opportunity to be a true weapon off the bench, but was largely under-utilized. Most of that was him being a defensive liability, so until he improves in that area it’s not looking good. He can shoot, but Pitino is clearly a stickler for defense.
- What are we going to do about Michael Hurt, you guys?
- The Gophers plummeted from a KenPom high of 21 right before the Miami game on Nov. 29 to 116 by the end of the year. Only Rutgers had a lower rating within the B1G, at 151. Poor, poor Rutgers.