Winning in the Big Ten is not easy. In fact winning it is rather hard.
The 2019-20 Gophers have struggled this season. They struggled in the non-conference portion of the schedule and they struggled in February with a nice stretch of 8-5 in the middle that gave us a glimmer of hope that this team was a threat to make a run to the NCAA Tournament. But overall this team has been on that can win at home, they can beat the teams that are clearly less talented and they have been rather inconsistent against all other opponents.
Last year’s team was lead by three very experienced players. Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and combined for over 300 starts in a Gopher uniform. And last season they accounted for 56% of the team’s total scoring. Of the nine players who averaged 10 minutes or more last year, only three returned.
Expectations heading into the season were rightfully tentative.
Last June I wrote a little bit about questions and expectations heading into this season. I was optimistic with NCAA Tournament & bubble talk. I wasn’t too far off, but this February fade has ended that dream.
When Coffey decided that he was not coming back, my expectations for this team took a major hit. Is there some talent on this team? Absolutely. And there is a chance for some depth and versatility on this team.
But there is so much that has to go right for this team to have similar success to last year’s team.
Instead, I think that this team still is an NCAA caliber team but one that is in constant bubble conversation. But just so many unknowns with this roster.
The Athletic took a look at what we could expect from this team back in August. This was the predicted ceiling, if all goes well.
The losses of Coffey, Murphy and McBrayer make for a complete overhaul, but the transfers could make for a much softer landing. There’s even more potential if Williams and Ihnen can produce right away. If Carr performs like an All-Big Ten guard, Oturu is an All-Big Ten big and Kalscheur keeps shooting as well as he has and becomes an All-Big Ten defender, the Gophers could sneak into the Big Ten’s top half and earn another NCAA bid.
As it turned out Kalscheur didn’t keep shooting well and Williams & Ihnen have not produced much at all.
So should we be all that surprised that this team is right round .500 and struggling to close out games? I’ve chuckled at a few message board posts and tweets that say that “rebuilding year” is no excuse, but yet everyone was expecting this to be a rebuilding year. A team that lost 3 starters, 56% of their scoring and were incorporating several new faces into the rotation who had never played Big Ten basketball.
I may sound like an old man shaking my fist in the air yelling, “back in my day,” moment, but we really do live in a “win now” culture. Back in my day teams at this level were built, they would learn how to win and it would often require a season of taking their lumps against more experienced teams before they were battle tested and ready to win at this level. Not just compete. Winning now while making massive changes is possible, but it is not the norm and those are usually programs who have no problem attracting elite talent.
The 1996-97 Gopher team that went to the Final Four was undeniably talented. Five players were drafted from that team, four of them in the first round. That team was incredibly talented and were it not for an injury to their point guard before the national semi-final game, they very well may have won the NCAA Championship (which would have been eventually taken away).
That team was basically the same team in the season prior. The 1995-96 team still had Bobby Jackson, Sam Jacobson, Quincy Lewis, John Thomas, Courtney James, Eric Harris, etc. But they were all a year younger. That team finished as a ho-hum 19-13 team, 6th in the Big Ten, never was ranked, missed the NCAA Tournament and lost in the 2nd round of the NIT. They lost close games on the road, had a couple nice upset wins but couldn’t win consistently.
Sometimes you need to learn how to win at this level. And that 1995-96 team, full of newcomers, is a really good example. Jackson was a JUCO transfer while you incorporated James, Lewis and Charles Thomas as freshmen. Several new faces that were eventually critical to the success of the 96-97 team that was truly elite.
This is exactly how I feel about the current Gopher squad. All along I have felt like this team was a prototypical “learning how to win” kind of team. You have all of your core pieces who are in new roles and learning how to win in the Big Ten while taking on those roles. Talented players but not so talented that they can win with talent alone. This team has to learn how to make stops when they are fatigued, not make careless turnovers, make clutch free throws and consistently score when it is absolutely necessary.
Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur were secondary options last year, and they thrived. This year they were going to get far more attention from Big Ten defenses. Oturu has thrived, Kalscheur has struggled.
Marcus Carr and Peyton Willis had to move from being practice warriors to being contributors on a Big Ten team. Then you add basically two true freshmen and a graduate transfer to the rotation and you have a very unique mix of players who are all learning on the fly.
Those four names mentioned, along with a couple of the incoming freshmen were going to be critical to this team’s success. Some of those worked out well and some never came to fruition. The result? An inconsistent season with a team that has struggled to close out games.
Look back at last year’s team that was much more experienced. They went 7-4 in games that were decided by 6 points or less (against P5 competition), 9-4 if you expand that to 7 point margin games. This year’s team is 2-7 in games decided by 6 points or less. Note that this is the same coaching staff as a year ago. A coaching staff that “has consistently not been able to close out games” was able to close out games a year ago.
What is the primary difference from last year to this? You had guys who had learned how to win at this level. Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey had been through this before and were ready to win close games in the Big Ten. This year’s crew? They are learning now. And the hope is that it will pay dividends next season.
Both of those preseason articles linked above ended with a rather similar conclusion. This 2019-20 team has questions but the 2020-21 team might be really good.
To be honest, I’m very excited about the 2020-21 team. But the 2019-20 team has blend a lot of new faces and answer even more questions.
Reconstructing this roster might be fun for Pitino now, but life without Murphy won’t be easy to get used to. The good news for the Gophers is that they won’t take nearly as big of a roster hit this season as they did last season, and they’ll have a chance to build from whatever growing pains they suffer through this season.
This season has been frustrating. The recent losses to Maryland and at Wisconsin were games within their reach. Those two games changes the current outlook dramatically. But they lost and while this season might be frustrating to watch. Next year’s might be better for it.
What happens with the head coach this offseason may change everything. But if Pitino remains and there are a couple added pieces to what is already in place, this could be a special team. (with the obvious caveat that Oturu returning is critical to that being a reality)
There have been some missed opportunities this year. There has been some unlucky bounces. But in a game and a conference where the margin for error is so thin, things like experience and being battle tested matter. This team is learning, I think these lessons will make them better for it.