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Men’s basketball: Is this what bottoming out looks like?

Back-to-back Big Ten drubbings leave us scratching our heads

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

I think we can all agree that the Minnesota’s men’s basketball season is off to a subpar start. While I don’t think anyone expected them to be undefeated at this point or anything, I certainly assumed this team would be slightly more competitive than they have been, and after getting completely pantsed by a short-handed Michigan team at home, I think it’s time to have a little huddle about what has (and hasn’t) been happening. In the words of Frank Costanza, “I’VE GOT A LOT OF PROBLEMS WITH YOU PEOPLE, AND NOW YOU’RE GONNA HEAR ABOUT IT.”

First and foremost, I want to establish that I expected this to be a rocky year and was under no illusion that this was a tournament team. Any time a non-Kentucky squad relies this heavily on freshmen there is going to be a steep, steep learning curve. Best case scenario, I figured the Gophers to be 9th in the conference and perhaps in the bubble conversation. Of course, that expectation was contingent on Dawson Garcia and Jamison Battle being healthy, reliable and dangerous. You can do a lot with two guys who score 15-20 points a game. So maybe we should start there.

To be quite frank, Garcia hasn’t been as advertised. His shot selection is suspect, he doesn’t play great defense and his demeanor on the court doesn’t scream “leader”. While his box scores aren’t atrocious by any means, anyone who has watched this team knows that he hasn’t been the true cornerstone. It’s a frustrating development because it’s not every day you get a major transfer like him coming to prop up a team undergoing a total rebuild. He’s a freak athlete but thus far hasn’t done much by way of making his teammates better. I can’t even believe I’m saying this, but if this type of play continues all season I’m not sure he’s a fit for this team.

Battle’s situation seems less self-inflicted. I had the pleasure (misfortune?) of attending the Michigan game in person, so I got to see him off the ball a bit more. He is a high-IQ guy who know where to be and how to maximize his game ... if he can get the ball. And that’s the crux of his disappearance, if you want to call it that. Last year’s Gopher squad was full of veteran mid-major types who had played a ton of basketball but were light on athleticism. This year’s squad is low on experience but high on athleticism. What does that mean? Guys like Luke Loewe and Payton Willis knew how maximize Battle as a weapon. Guys like Braeden Carrington and Jayden Henley do not. We’re seeing Battle being in the right spots at the right time, but his teammates aren’t finding him. This team is going nowhere fast until that happens.

With Garcia and Battle falling short, Ta’lon Cooper is trying to shoulder more of the scoring load, but that’s not supposed to be his game. He was brought in to be the floor general feeding the scorers. Instead, he is averaging more points and turnovers than he ever has. Pharrel Payne, Joshua Ola-Joseph and Braeden Carrington are seeing court time, but are learning on the fly so mistakes are abundant. Jaden Henley looks like he’s downright freaked out by the speed of the game. It’s a mess across the board.

Now, it’s extremely early in the season, but alarm bells are already ringing, because this is way worse than expected. Based on what I’ve seen so far, this team has the potential to be one of the worst on record. And after nine games, I’m still wondering —- are we watching an inexperienced team that is bottoming out and will finally start to find its way? Or are we watching a team that is a collection of talent that has no idea which direction it’s headed. It’s an important distinction.

As an aside, here are some questions that are already creeping into my head:

  • Is Ben Johnson capable of coaching these guys up? He’s recruiting like we expected, but this team’s on-court execution has been a disaster. Again, it’s December, so let’s give him some time, but man. This is bad.
  • Is Dawson Garcia going to be what we expected when he transferred here? Right now he’s not playing a ton of team basketball. Would love to see him play closer in to the hoop.
  • Will Jamison Battle shake this early-season funk and become the potential first-teamer that we know he can be? He had pre-season foot surgery but appears to be at full strength.
  • When are we going to see some ah-ha moments from the freshmen? Payne looks like the real deal but can’t stay on the court, Carrington can’t find his shooting stroke, and Henley looks completely flummoxed at all times. Ola-Joseph seems to be the only one of the bunch starting to put it together, and you can actually sense his confidence.

I’m willing to give this team a ton of latitude this year, given that it is effectively Year 1 for Johnson, and I recognize that it’s still laughably early to be drawing any sort of conclusion on what we’re working with. But if this isn’t the bottom, I’m not sure I want to see what that is. Success to me this year looks like winning a few conference games and showing growth and cohesion throughout the year. However, with both of the veteran foundation pieces struggling and things looking generally disorganized, I’m worried that the mountain to climb might be steeper than expected. The Michigan fiasco left me very concerned.