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Where Does Gophers’ Basketball Go From Here?

Minnesota finds itself at a program crossroads heading into Nebraska

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Michigan State
Coach Pitino ponders the deep questions that will plague Gophers fans in the coming weeks.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Let me tell you a story. It is about an extremely talented college basketball team. This team has a rebounding machine with an efficient inside offensive game. This team has a wing who can slash, draw fouls and dunk on opposing teams with ease. This team has a respectable bench. Unfortunately, this team also relies too heavily on offensive rebounding and getting to the free throw line to generate its offense.

This team looked like a top-25 ish team in December. They piled up wins, some of which were against high level competition. Heck, one was against a KenPom top-ten team. They hit a few snags, played a few tough teams, and lost to a bad squad on the road. Their coach is in turmoil as fans wonder whether they should maintain his job. They seemed destined for the bubble despite a talented roster and plenty of experience.


The rebounding machine is Trevor Mbakwe... or is it Jordan Murphy? The slashing wing is Rodney Williams... or is it Amir Coffey? The bench is comprised of Joe Coleman, Mo Walker, Julian Welch... or is it Isaiah Washington, Eric Curry, and Matz Stockman? The coach under fire is Tubby Smith... or is it Richard Pitnino.

As the philosophizer Rustin Cohle once said, “Time is a flat circle.”

Us Gopher fans might as well be Phil Connors in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania because the same thing keeps happening over and over again. Despite a coaching change and six years passing, the sky is still blue, Minnesota is still cold, and the Gophers find themselves a mediocre bubble team with a stagnant offense that just can’t get out of its own way.

Where exactly does the program go from here? Six years into the tenure of a young coach and the Gophers are still mired in the middle of the Big Ten standings and floating precariously on the NCAA Tournament Bubble. The easy answer is to fire Coach Pitino regardless of how the season ends because surely he can’t salvage another season of mediocrity and bubble drama into anything remotely respectable. But what good does that really do? It would be back to square one with very little in the cupboard recruiting wise for 2019-2020 and a lack of depth at a variety of positions across the roster. It could mean another lackluster coaching search that leads to an underwhelming candidate and another joyful 6-year cycle that ends in one or two tournament appearances and very little rising up the conference standings.

As easy as it is to say Pitino should be fired for underachieving, and make no mistake, he has indeed underachieved this season, does that make it the right long-term decision for the program? Coaching turnover does as much damage to a middling major conference program as anything else. The continual churn on the sidelines at the Barn impedes the progress of the program just as much as any failed recruiting pitch to the local talent or loss at cellar dweller Big Ten programs.

Is a coaching change really what this program needs? Or does continuity ensure the building of a reasonable foundation in order to raise both the floor and the ceiling of seasons to come?

There’s no easy answer to these questions. But as the Gophers head into Lincoln tonight on February 13th, they sit at 6-7 in the conference and one of the last teams in the tournament field according to most prognosticators. Exactly six years ago to the day, the Gophers were 5-6 in the conference, floating on the bubble, and desperately needing a win to boast their morale and their NCAA Tournament aspirations. They defeated Wisconsin in overtime at home on Valentine’s Day thanks to some heroics provided by Andre Hollins. That team proceeded to finish in lackluster fashion but at least managed to win an NCAA Tournament game. Despite this, Tubby Smith was fired. The Gophers, as you well know, haven’t seen the second round since.

If the Gophers do indeed finish this season strong, does that ensure future success? No, but it would provide the fanbase with a much more positive impression of the program’s direction going forward, wouldn’t it? Perhaps these next few weeks shouldn’t dictate the decision made about Coach Pitino at all. Perhaps we should have our mind made up one way or the other regardless of how the chips fall in the coming weeks. If the Gophers fail to make the tournament due to one game, is that enough to give Pitino the axe (and not the good kind)? Many around these parts have said as much but I’m not so sure...

I suppose I haven’t really said anything concrete or definitive in this post. I have merely pointed out the similarities between the 2012-2013 Gophers and this year’s current edition, made some TV/movie references, pondered as to whether firing Pitino is the right decision regardless of the results of our final 7+ games, and rambled for about 800 words.

But perhaps the point is that for Minnesota, the answers are always shrouded in uncertainty, making the decisions to come all the more difficult. It often feels likely the wrong decisions will be made because, after all, we are Minnesota, and the destiny of the program is to continually be in this circle of hellish bubbledom and underachieving.

Despite all this, one thing is for certain. The Gophers converge on Lincoln tonight with their season seemingly in the balance, but it will probably just feel like more of the same for Gopher basketball fans regardless of the outcome.