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Minnesota Basketball: State of the Gopher basketball program

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Where does Gopher Basketball stand and where is it headed?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Des Moines Practice Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Today is the President’s State of the Union speech. That is largely unrelated to this article other than it prompted me to assess the current state of Gopher basketball.

We are 6.5 years into the Richard Pitino tenure and it is safe to say that it has been a tenure of mixed results. I have heard a number of arguments about how successful Pitino has or has not been. There is a pretty ugly Big Ten record, his recruiting track record is spotty and overall roster construction is rather suspect when we are in a 1-year rebuild while in year 7.

We have seen a couple really good seasons along with a couple really awful seasons.

His overall win percentages and Big Ten finishes actually resemble Dan Monson’s. On the other hand he did make 2 NCAA Tournaments in 6 years, earned a 5-seed which was the highest seed we have seen for the Gophers since Clem Haskins and he upset Louisville to get a really nice NCAA Tourney win last season. The season in between was maybe his best team that was very promising before it was wrecked by injuries and a warranted suspension.

So has he been successful? Is the program in good shape and primed to be competitive for the foreseeable future?

Let’s dive into a little more details to asses the current state of the program and the outlook for the near-term future. There are three primary areas I will focus on today; recruiting, program leadership/roster construction and player development.

RECRUITING

Recruiting has been so hit and miss for Pitino and arguably his recruiting misses are the biggest reason we are even having the discussion how the state of his program after 6+ years. Jordan Murphy, Nate Mason and Daniel Oturu have been fantastic signings. Josh Martin, Ahmad Gilbert, Isaiah Washington, Gaston Diedhiou have been major busts. And probably most important to note are the ones he missed on, specifically locally.

Other than Nate Mason, the entire 2014 class was a major bust which creates a significant hole in the overall roster down the road.

The patterns are what are most concerning. Far too frequently he has mishandled many talented local kids. I’m not talking about the Tre Jones or Matthew Hurts of the world. Kids of that caliber will often pick a program like Duke. But other very talented kids who didn’t get enough attention from the Gopher staff. McKinley Wright should be a Gopher. Theo John and/or Jericho Sims are talented and play positions very much in need. Tyrell Terry and Zeke Nnaji are 15-16 point per game scorers in the Pac 12. Losing Dawson Garcia to Marquette shouldn’t be a thing. And it isn’t over yet, but Kerwin Walton really didn’t get proper attention from this staff until AFTER he blew up this summer.

We were never going to land all of those names. But many of them were mishandled while the staff prioritized other players. Prioritizing is understandable, handling the relationship with those next level names is an art.

Sometimes you just get unlucky. Amir Coffey leaving early without having a draft grade or having a guy who gets into trouble and you have to part ways. But being unlucky is an excuse you can only use infrequently.

Whether the problem lies in the evaluation of players and how they’ll fit or whether it is not properly developing relationships and selling the program to the players you want. There have been far too many misses in recruiting. Both in choosing the wrong guy who ends up not contributing or missing on the one you really wanted.

Circling back... this staff has had some very significant wins in recruiting. Nate Mason, Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy were three of the best Gophers we have seen in 20 years. The 2018 class of Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa was a very good class.

So why were the seasons with Mason, Murphy and Coffey not more successful? The misses mentioned above left you just enough holes that your margin for error was too thin. One injury and/or suspension and that particular team became rather vulnerable.

My problem really is less with actual recruiting and more with roster management. In 6.5 years Pitino has yet to have a team with real depth and most seasons has at least one starter that is a pretty significant

ROSTER MANAGEMENT

Year 7 of the Pitino era and every single season has some holes on the roster. His first couple seasons he was buoyed by the likes of Austin Hollins (1 year), Andre Hollins, Elliott Eliason and Maurice Walker. But beginning near the end of his second year and clearly throughout the third season the roster required patching due to a couple of missed classes by Tubby and not getting enough out of his first couple recruiting classes for Pitino.

Suspensions and injuries didn’t help.

Year 4 was a turnaround season. On the backs of Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy, Pitino added Akeem Springs and Amir Coffey to have a pretty complete starting 5, now that Reggie Lynch was eligible. That team though, as talented as it was, really was about 6 players deep. And when one injury hit, this team became very average.

Year 5 was another disaster season. Lack of depth, lack of any impact freshmen and eventually a combination of injuries and a suspension made the 2017-18 season a total mess.

Which was quickly redeemed in Pitino’s 6th year when his club made the NCAA Tournament with Jordan Murphy & Amir Coffey carrying a team that was slightly deeper than previous teams. This team got into the tournament as a 10-seed and managed a first round upset before having to face Michigan State in round 2.

Injuries happen. Losing Amir Coffey for much of 2017-18, losing Springs for the 2017 NCAA Tournament game, losing most of Eric Curry’s career...these all contribute to the lack of depth and holes in the roster.

Suspensions, unfortunately, happen (though you do have a little more control over this happening). But when you factor in the recruiting misses, having a couple classes that are missing guys at a key position or two; this has dramatically hindered the potential of this program in recent seasons.

Imagine if the 2018-19 team had a true point guard? But they were forced to play Isaiah Washington off the bench at point and started games with Coffey moving from SF to point.

Imagine if the 2016-17 Tournament team had one more player off the bench capable of contributing? Instead, once Springs was lost for that tournament game, this team had zero depth and the dropoff in talent when anybody came off the bench was detrimental.

Imagine if the 5 players who came in as part of the 2014 recruiting class would have netted more than just one who would ever really contribute? Just getting 2 more guys who became solid players off the bench would have hugely affected the next 3 seasons.

Imagine if this current team had a strong power forward?

Constructing a roster that gives your team a chance to win even when things go wrong has been a huge disappointment in the last 7 years. Partly a recruiting problem and partially a lack of preparation for future seasons.

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT

This area is one where I’ve been more pleased than not. Especially when it comes to the development of the big men. Jordan Murphy really blossomed in his junior and senior seasons. Daniel Oturu has exploded as a sophomore. Reggie Lynch was a mid-major center who became a Big Ten dominant one.

Many guards have progressed as well. And Amir Coffey was groomed into a player coveted by the next level.

Not everyone improved but that’s going to be true at every program. Some players max out their ability, some players don’t want to do the work necessary to get better. But I do think this is an area that has been solid. Gabe Kalscheur has really struggled as a sophomore, but this is really isolated to poor shooting. I don’t expect this shooting funk to continue through his career. Watching how Kalscheur continues to develop in all of the other areas of his game is a better indication of his development. I fully suspect that as a junior his 3pt shooting percentage will dramatically increase.

I think this area of Pitino’s program has been solid and worth calling out.

OVERALL SUCCESSES

Pitino’s 6+ years has been up and down. A couple seasons have been very good, a couple have been really (REALLY) bad. So what’s the verdict?

The bad seasons have some legit excuses and some of those excuses could have been avoided with better roster management. The Good seasons have been rather good, but still hitting a ceiling that we can’t seem to break through.

In my opinion, this season is a telling one. This was a year when you lost two players who were two of the program’s better players in our generation. Not many programs lose players of that caliber and go into the next season expecting a ton of success.

This year’s team was universally predicted to finish among the bottom 3 or 4 teams. And they still might. But this team is noticeably improving throughout the season. That is what is most encouraging to me.

I firmly believe that this 2019-20 team is learning how to win. It will continue to be inconsistent till the end. But if Oturu comes back in 2020-21, this team could be rather special.

So for me? Richard Pitino is going just fine. Has he been elite? Not yet. Has it been a disaster? Certainly not. This current team very well could earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which would be a season of playing above your expected outcome.

It has been an interesting 7 seasons. I expect we will see an 8th and then some serious evaluation will take place.