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Gopher Hoops, what is the ceiling for the program?

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What are realistic expectations for Minnesota basketball?

Minnesota v UCLA Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The 2018-19 season is officially in the books for the Gophers. It was a roller coaster ride of going from nearly ranked, to tanked. The status of the head coach seemed safe to likely gone and now back to safe again. This is usually the time where we take a look ahead to the offseason and peek ahead into what we think we can expect next year. But rather, in this post I want to discuss to points of view on what is the realistic ceiling of the Gopher program.

I’ve personally been a Gopher hoops fan for 3+ decades. As a kid through today it is my absolute favorite team in to root for in this state. It is probably the reason I desired to start up a Gopher blog and there isn’t a team that I put more emotional energy into than this one.

I remember the late-80s and early-90s teams when Clem Haskins was taking teams on runs into the NCAA Tournament second weekend. I went to Clem’s basketball camp at St. Thomas and was in awe of him and Richard Coffey who shared with us a few of his tricks to being able to rebound in the Big Ten. I was at the first weekend of games in Kansas City for that 1996-97 team. And about 12 years ago I made the decision to put my Gopher basketball passion to the keyboard and blog about Gopher sports.

In fact it was just my second post ever when Tubby Smith was hired.

But the years leading up to Tubby, the 6 seasons Tubby coached and now the 6 seasons we have had Richard Pitino have all been eerily similar. And that was an extremely long introduction to get to this point of today’s post. Looking back at the last 20 years of Gopher basketball, things have been relatively the same. And perhaps we look back on the Clem years as a little more golden than they actually were, outside the years he was actually cheating.

So what is the actual ceiling for a program like Minnesota? Are we kidding ourselves that without some extreme luck, we are just never going to be a program that consistently competes near the top of the Big Ten? Are we just a mid-level Big Ten program who can maybe occasionally play above our relegated position? Or are there some unique benefits to basketball in Minnesota that, with the right guy leading the program, can make this a very good program?

Let’s take a look at both scenarios.

We Are Who We Are

Supporting Facts:

  • Mediocrity for a very long time
  • After 6 years Pitino is arguably in the exact same spot as Tubby was in his final year
  • The second weekend of NCAA Tournament hasn’t officially been achieved since 1990
  • We have the third most NIT wins of any program and 4th most games played

What does all of that mean? We have been a very mediocre program for a long time. Not awful. Not the worst program in the Big Ten, but incredibly mediocre.

  • Dan Monson - .393 Big Ten Win %
  • Tubby Smith - .426
  • Richard Pitino - .364

The only coach to have a Big Ten win% above .500 since John Kundla was Bill Musselman. Point is that this program, regardless of the coach, has not been consistently above .500 in the Big Ten in over 30 years. Tubby was more successful than Monson or Pitino but with Pitino there have been higher highs and lower lows.

This sustained mediocrity begs the question...is this just who we are?

Pitino gave us one year of finishing 4th in the conference with a 5-seed as our reward. That’s actually a good season and nothing to be ashamed of. But is that a relative ceiling for this program? We really cannot escape the fact that we’ve had three different coaches achieve relatively the same level of success over 20 years. And rather than say it’s time for a new guy to get us to that next level, maybe that’s just who we are.

There are different periods of talent locally, administrations with varying degrees of support given to the program but the results have all been relatively the same. Despite what we want to believe, this is a program that does not have a great history of success.

And if you look at things at a larger scale, it is just really difficult to disrupt the college basketball scene. College basketball and the Big Ten is largely dominated by blue bloods. When was the last time you saw Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska win a Big Ten title? The answer is 1982 and it was Minnesota. Wisconsin thrust themselves into the upper echelon of the Big Ten, but other than their ascent it has been exclusively dominated by Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State.

Maybe we need to have our expectations in line with reality. We want more, but history has shown us that more is unlikely. Is it possible that we just are who we are?

This Program Can Be So Much More

Supporting Facts:

  • Only D1 program in the state (not just the only P5 program)
  • Urban campus
  • Good recruiting base when you only need 2-3 kids per class

With all of that said above, there really are some unique advantages that Minnesota has which give it a chance to establish a fantastic program that really can win consistently at the highest levels.

First and foremost there is unique and talented recruiting base here. Look at these Big Ten states and the number of top 100 players over the last 3 recruiting classes.

  • Indiana - 12
  • Illinois - 10
  • Ohio - 9
  • Minnesota - 7
  • Michigan - 4
  • Iowa - 4
  • Wisconsin - 2
  • Nebraska - 0

That’s fourth on the list. And all of those states above (and below) Minnesota have multiple programs within the state fighting for those players.

This recruiting base isn’t particularly deep, but just imagine if we had signed 4 or 5 of those top 7 (we signed 1). And there are currently 7 more in the next two years. In a sport that really doesn’t require very many good recruits to be successful, that would make for a top 20 team right now and for the next few seasons. Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin have fewer top 100 recruits AND yet they still have the likes of Iowa State, Creighton, Marquette, Northern Iowa, Milwaukee, etc as competition for recruits.

The fact that there are “enough” good recruits and having basically zero competition within 4 hours is a competitive advantage. This alone is really reason enough to think that Minnesota could be more competitive in the Big Ten on a consistent basis. Basketball really doesn’t require a ton of good recruits, just a few go a long ways.

A little winning, momentum and program excitement gets the first couple recruiting dominoes to fall and then we win a little more and kids want to stay here. Someone develop Gopher basketball as a brand that is desirable and you start to get better players from your own backyard.

Not to mention that the U of MN is a good school in an urban setting with tons of great opportunities upon graduation. But we all know that basketball games are not won by having a good engineering school.

It takes some early success that is sustained by recruiting. And then the positives of what Minnesota has to offer begin to outweigh the negatives. A little momentum and probably a little bit of early luck, but this program absolutely has enough going for it that success can be attained and sustained here.

Sounds so easy when you type it out, but nevermind that it is exactly what every program is trying to do. Is it easy? Nope. Can it be done here? I see no reason why not.

What Does The Future Hold

I’m one who falls into the camp that this program’s ceiling is closer to the latter section rather than the former. With the right coach things could take off and have sustained success in the Big Ten. Will that happen? I’m not sure. I think it’ll take a little bit of luck at just the right time.

Is this program one that could be a frequent Final Four contender? Not likely. Can it be at the level of Purdue that is is the conversation for a 2, 3 or 4-seed most years and in the mix for a Big Ten title? Yes, I think there are plenty of reasons why that could be realistic.