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Richard Pitino and the late-season collapse

It’s not just you. The Gophers have been largely terrible in the back half of most seasons.

NCAA Basketball: Green Bay at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Another frustrating year is just about in the books for the Golden Gophers, one that saw them once again each a decent pinnacle in the middle of the season, reaching #16 in the nation at one point and projected as high a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament by some bracketologists. But from there it was painful erosion that saw them fall line by line in Bracketology until they were out of the Top 25 and out of the projected field.

It would be horrifying if it weren’t so predictable. But it got me thinking about just how bad the late-season swoons have been under Richard Pitino, a coach who has been roundly criticized for seeing his teams effectively get weaker over the course of a season, not stronger.

To be clear, I don’t want to pick on the guy. However, I was curious to actually quantify the late season decline that so many of Pitino’s teams seem to undergo. Historical week-by-week Top 25s were only sort of helpful, as Minnesota was ranked only a few times throughout Pitino’s tenure. I’ve always harped on Pitino’s record in February, which is egregious, though that tells another part of the story. GopherNation had the great idea to seek week-by-week projected seeds according to Bracket Matrix, which can effectively track the sentiment that experts have for Minnesota in any given week, which is partially backed by metrics. Brilliant!

First, let’s look at Pitino’s year by year teams. Some were in the mix for a postseason berth. Others were lost from the beginning.

  • 2013-14: Pitino’s first season. The Gophers are in the mix for the postseason but ultimately make, and win, the NIT.
  • 2014-15: Minnesota started out 11-2 but began the Big Ten season 0-5 and were never seriously considered for the postseason.
  • 2015-16: A bad season. Carlos Morris quit and the sex tape thing happened. The team finished 8-23 and was never in contention for the postseason.
  • 2016-17: The magical season where the team went undefeated in February, made the tournament as a 5-seed and was upset by Middle Tennessee State.
  • 2017-18: Gophers open the season ranked 15th in the AP Poll. Eric Curry tears his ACL, Reggie Lynch is dismissed and Amir Coffey misses the final 12 games with a shoulder injury. The Gophers do not qualify for the postseason.
  • 2018-19: Minnesota is never ranked but makes the NCAA Tournament as a 10-seed and beats Louisville in the first round.
  • 2019-20: Minnesota is never ranked but is part of the bubble conversation until late in the season. The Big Ten Tournament is canceled due to to COVID-19.
  • 2020-21: Minnesota is ranked as high as 16th in the AP Poll but falls apart late in the season.

So, out of eight seasons Minnesota had realistic postseason expectations (or made the tournament) in six of them.

Life on the bubble

GopherNation drew up the chart below, which is very telling, and is a chart showing the average projected seed of Minnesota according to Bracket Matrix in the years they were considered a viable tournament team. We don’t have data from 2013-14, but they were presumed a 9-seed in early February according to an ESPN article.

Still, the chart is telling, and you can see the Gophers play themselves out of the tournament entirely, or at least not do themselves any favors in every year but one, when they inexplicably caught fire in 2017. Even 2019 — when they made the tournament as a 10-seed — was a disappointment compared to where they were projected weeks before.

If there is a chart that defines the Pitino era it might be this one.

The AP Top 25

Pitino has had a tough relationship with the AP Top 25. None of his teams have ever finished the season ranked. In fact, the Gophers only entered the poll in three of his eight seasons, which is problematic on its own. However, there is a clear trend when they were ranked, which was an ascent and a quick decline.

In 2016-17 the team played its way into the Jan. 9 poll, entering at #24, before exiting the next week. Up and down.

In 2017-18 they entered at #15 before the season started, topped out at #12 and were unranked two weeks later. Up and down.

This year they played their way up to #16, remaining in the poll for the month of January before falling out, never to return.

February Blues

Lastly, let’s take a look at February, the most important month in college basketball and one that has been positively unkind to Richard Pitino’s Gophers. Here’s year-by-year breakdown of the record in February:

2014: 3-5
2015: 3-3
2016: 2-4
2017: 7-0
2018: 1-6
2019: 2-6
2020: 2-4
2021: 2-6
Total: 22-34

For me, Pitino’s February record may be the most telling stat. Where the AP Poll numbers show broad strokes the February struggles put a giant spotlight on the program’s inability to convert in what is the most crucial time of the year. In fact, with the exception of the crazy 7-0 run in 2017, the team never finished above .500 in February. It certainly adds more color to the situation in 2019 when the team made the tournament and won a game. On the surface it may sound successful. Dig deeper into that February and they went an abysmal 2-6.

Pitino’s seasons have been fraught with unfortunate circumstances including injuries, personnel issues and downright bad luck. But it’s always felt like his teams have never reached their potential, and after eight seasons it certainly feels like it’s more than just bad luck. And by looking at it from a few different angles it’s clear that his teams simply don’t sustain their potential.