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The 2018-19 Season: A Retrospective

Madison wins, Rutgers losses and a nifty NCAA Tournament appearance

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Michigan State vs Minnesota
Jordan Murphy walks off the court in his last game as a Golden Gopher.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

That’s a wrap, folks.

In a season that started with so much promise, bottomed out into a near-coaching search and finished with an upset victory over a traditional powerhouse, it was another roller coaster of a year for a program that knows no other way.

Seriously, consider that the Gophers entered this season expecting to finish somewhere in the middle of the conference, but with a ceiling that some considered to be in the top quarter. When all was said and done they finished seventh with major victories over Wisconsin, Iowa, and Purdue along with a handful of others. Was it the best season they’ve ever had? No. Was it successful? Absolutely. I told myself before the season that Richard Pitino needed an NCAA appearance at minimum to save his job, and a first round win to feel safe. He got both.

I’m as guilty as anyone of grabbing my pitchfork after the Rutgers loss, ready to torch the place. It was the team’s sixth loss in seven games, another horrifying month of February and a loss to a perennial conference cellar dweller in a game they couldn’t afford to lose. It was frustrating.

But you know what? They rebounded. It’s easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater with a poor performance for a month, but it’s a long season, and it takes a fair amount of focus to reserve judgement until the season is complete. Post Rutgers? Minnesota beat Purdue (twice), a tough Penn State team and stomped a Louisville team that was ranked #21 in KenPom. That’s a strong finish.

But how should we take this year? Seasons will always have their highs and lows, but what they look like in totality is what really matters. On one hand this was a team that held its own in the best conference in the nation, overpowered its non-conference foes and won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Technically you’re looking at one of the 32 best teams in the nation. That’s not nothing.

On the other hand, this was also a team with a veteran core that arguably fell short of expectations, dropping several winnable games against lesser opponents and never seriously challenging the upper tier of a conference many thought they would be a part of. For a program whose coach is in his sixth year and with full squad of his own players, you can’t help but think this team was destined for a better finish than getting stomped by Michigan State by 20 as a 10-seed in the second round.

Perhaps it can be both. Such is the double-edged sword of college basketball. Let’s recap the story lines:

The schedule in review

The Gophers peaked at #41 in KenPom late in the season and never fell below #66. A strong nonconference performance (sans a road loss to Boston College) including a sweep of the Vancouver Showcase flashed early momentum for the team, as did an early win over a Nebraska team we thought was destined for the tournament. And who could forget the road win at Wisconsin to truly set expectations at a new level?

Reality set in with a curb stomping at the hands of a then-winless Illinois team by an astounding 27 points. In my view that dealt a blow to the team’s psyche that they really didn’t recover from until late in February when things were on the line, largely playing scared, even when they backed into wins, save for a no-doubter over Iowa. After the Illinois loss the Gophers went 4-7, putting their season and Richard Pitino’s job on the line.

Things bottomed out with a road loss to Rutgers and things really got dicey, but they pulled themselves together, dusted a bad Northwestern team on the road and won perhaps their most important game of the season, a thrilling home victory over Purdue behind 32 points from Amir Coffey and a double-double from Jordan Murphy. The season had been turned around for good. Big Ten Tournament wins over Penn State and Purdue locked them into a 10-seed, and the rest is history.

Jordan Murphy is a goddamn animal

I truly hope that everyone who watched this team this year took a moment to appreciate just how amazing Jordan Murphy is. We were truly watching one of the greats, and it’s going to be a long time before we see someone else even breathe the same air as High Motor Murph. He ended up leading the Big Ten in rebounding for the second year in a row and averaged a double-double for the second year in a row, en route to being named First Team All-Big Ten by the media.

His ability to physically will shots through the hoop was something I’d never seen before and night in and night out I was never quite sure how he did it. “Jaw dropping” is the only way to describe it and often I was just left shaking my head. It was truly a sight to see. How do you even begin to replace a guy like him going forward?

The freshman class is going to be really good

Raise your hand if you thought that Gabe Kalscheur would be the most impactful freshman of this year’s class? The easy money was on Daniel Oturu and, while he was definitely a valuable addition, Kalscheur added a completely new dynamic to the team and even won a couple games by himself, all while regularly times locking down the other team’s best player.

The long and short of it is that between Kalscheur, Oturu and Jarvis Omersa, there is a strong, young, reliable core of players who are only beginning to scratch the surface of their talent. Imagine a more consistent Kalscheur who can score 15-20 points regularly? Oturu could be a realistic NBA prospect as early as next year if he bulks up and improves his consistency. And while Omersa is still a project he at least showed his aggressiveness and defensive ability while filling in for Murphy in the final game of the year. It’s been a long time since we’ve had such a successful group of true freshmen.

Eric Curry. Will he ever be healthy?

The sad saga of Eric Curry continued as the forward lost a significant portion of another year after suffering a foot injury and having to go under the knife. Not only was this on the heels of a completely lost year last year, early season setbacks meant that the sophomore forward only played in 15 games and never really had the opportunity to get into a rhythm.

When he’s on the court, Curry is a useful forward who offers a high IQ, good vision and a calming presence. And for a team that was thin in the frontcourt to begin with, having a competent backup PF was mandatory. It was a bummer that we really never got to see Curry get in to a real groove.

The question is, then, what can we realistically expect from him going forward? Assuming he has the entire offseason to heal and can come to the table at 100% next year, he should pair with Oturu as a starter on the block. The problem is that he’s never been a key starter, and will need to fill a humungous gap left by the departure of Jordan Murphy. That’s a lot to ask of a player that hasn’t averaged more than 20 minutes per game in a season.

Amir Coffey. What’s the ceiling?

We’ve seen the box scores. We’ve heard the hype. We’ve seen the increasingly regular statrospheric performances ... and we’ve also seen the painfully impotent games where Coffey was MIA.

There were several times this season where I was convinced that Coffey was on the way to Big Ten superstardom. He had 11 games of 20 or more points, ended up sixth in the Big Ten in scoring, and had a decidedly breakout season in his junior year. But he was also headscratchingly inconsistent for 23 of the year where he rattled off 11 scoring efforts of 11 points or less. For the record, Carsen Edwards had three such efforts, Cassius Winston had five, James Palmer Jr. had five, Lamar Stevens had two and Ethan Happ had six. Those were each of the players who averaged more points than Amir Coffey this season.

My point? Coffey is electric when he’s on and is arguably the most difficult matchup in the conference. But he had far too many games where he just disappeared, and the team suffered as a result. Even just a slight improvement in consistency will vault Coffey to a First Teamer in his senior season. The good news? He ended the season on an incredibly high note, averaging 23.5 ppg in his final eight games.

Pitino. Is he a long-term solution?

For this one, let’s loop in our resident Richard Pitino monitor, Ustreet:

If we are being honest the answer is a shrug emoji. I hope the answer is yes.

Here’s why I say that by way of an analogy. Last night I went to see Bronze Radio Return (terrible band name, fun set), a band that has been together and touring professionally since 2007. I promise this has a point in addition to showing how hip I am with the kids and their music these days. The opener for the show was a band out of Denver called Wildermiss. Wildermiss was, er, fine. Each one of their songs had at least one section that was good, be it a drum beat, a vocal run, or a guitar lick. There was clear potential in each song and on their best one the crowd was almost willing to actually bop along to an opener, but was prevented because something was a little off. The sum of the parts of Wildermiss’s songs did not quite congeal into a proper sonic whole.

Pitino is Wildermiss. There is clear potential for him to be wildly successful at Minnesota or crash and burn. All of the parts are in place, but the cohesiveness continues to be lacking. What is unquestionably true is that Pitino’s squad have wildly high variance. This season presented a microcosm of that variance dynamic with blowout losses at Illinois and Ohio State and wins over Purdue and Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers had the capability of beating anyone on their schedule other than Michigan State, and the frustrating ability to play down to their worst opponents. Plus for funzies they had a game stolen from them by an officiating crew (Nebraska) and stole one thanks to an officiating crew (Washington). It is worth taking a chance on him for the future, but doing so with clear eyes that the ride to long-term success will have plenty of turbulence.

During his six seasons at the helm of the University of Minnesota, Pitino has been to two NCAA Tournaments (5 and 10 seed) and barring the complete roster depletion of two seasons ago should have been in three in a row. Next season, assuming the return of Amir Coffey, Pitino has another squad that should make the NCAA Tournament. Marcus Carr is the presumed starter at PG, and will give Minnesota another much needed three point threat. Kalscheur and Oturu should improve over the off-season on their strong freshmen seasons. Coffey can take another leap into being the NBA Draft pick he is capable. Eric Curry will hopefully be fully recovered from injury. That starting five is tournament caliber, and the bench might even give them some points. If the squad performs to expectation, Pitino’s teams will have made the NCAA Tournament three out of four years. “Officially” Minnesota has not done that in program history. Unofficially, three NCAA appearances in four years is better than anything Minnesota has seen in almost two decades.

His recruiting, while variable in state, has improved tremendously relative to the program’s long term average. That recruiting will take another step forward with more wins next year. Pitino has surrounded himself with a better support staff in Rob Jeter, Ed Conroy, and Kyle Linstead. These are all positive signs. The 2020 in-state class is shaping up to be strong and Pitino and company can score a lot of big wins just on Minnesota talent alone.

Now we just have to wait to see if Pitino can produce a hit single.

And that’s that

I’m sure there are a hundred other story lines from this season. We didn’t even get to Dupree McBrayer and his emotional year that included the loss of his mother, or the complete disappearance of Isaiah Washington (he’s gotta be transferring, right?) or the late-season heroics from Matz Stockman, who we’ll promptly never hear from again. At the end of the day it was as much of a roller coaster ride as I thought it would be. And a fun one at that.

What do you got? Let’s hear it.