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Minnesota Basketball: End of season roundtable looking at Gopher hoops

That season was ugly, is there a glimmer of hope for Gopher basketball?

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

We have some elite college basketball minds on this TDG staff and the internal conversation about this year’s team and the direction of the program have been constant throughout the season. Finally it was time that we share our collective thoughts on the season.

There is much more to be said and so many more questions that need to be answered. But we are kicking off the off-season with a roundtable of questions looking back at arguably the worst season in our lifetimes.

1 - Time to check in on everyone’s mental health. How are we feeling after having to endure that long and painful season?

ZipsofAkron - I began the season fairly optimistic, thinking the ceiling was them being a bubble team but figuring that Garcia, Battle and Cooper would at least provide a high-enough floor to win some games and stay competitive. After seeing what I saw this season, my optimism is gone and I’m worried that the road back to relevancy is longer than we think.

Ustreet - As our former fearless leader would note, never let entertainment get in the way of your mental health.

GopherNation - I was half expecting this season to be more like this, so my mental health check on Gopher hoops is fine. Where things really took a toll was that I was so disinterested in the Gophers that I lost interest in the rest of college basketball. Over the last few weeks, I have been forcing myself to get back and it has been working. I’m adequately excited for the NCAA Tournament and thoroughly enjoyed many conference tournament games over the last couple weeks. But that was a painful season we had to endure. Enuring is my personal mantra lately so adding Gopher hoops to the list was not terribly difficult.

mowe0018 - Honestly, not great Bob! Despite injuries, this roster was still in better shape talent-wise than last season. Taking this under consideration and knowing that the Big Ten in general wasn’t particularly special this year, you would think the team’s record and progress would have been far more noticeable in the second year of a coach’s tenure. Instead, according to College Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS) statistic, this was the 3rd worst Gopher team since the 1949-1950 season (note: easily the worst team ranking nationally of the much shorter KenPom era coming in at 217th surrounded by the likes of Northwestern State, Howard, and George Washington). Even the darkest years of Tubby and Pitino didn’t reach these depths of despair. And there isn’t a shining light at the end of the tunnel considering the team’s best player (Battle) very likely isn’t returning and its best recruit for next season (Evans) decommitted. After Pitino’s bottoming out in 2015-2016, there was hope to be found in a promising recruiting class including Amir Coffey and Eric Curry, key quality transfers, and truly good returning production in Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy. That team then went on to win 24 games and grab the program’s highest NCAA Tournament seed since the Final Four run of 1997. But such promise doesn’t exist for this squad unless you think evolutionary leaps are waiting for the likes of Ola-Joseph and Carrington.

2 - Season 1 for Ben Johnson seemed to be one where he got more out of less talent. But season 2 was the opposite. Time for a grade and review of Ben Johnson after 2 seasons.

ZipsofAkron - D. I had several mini-goals for this season (win the SoCal Challenge, for instance), but the overarching goal was to get better as the season wore on, as I think that is a key indicator that the coach is having an impact. It’s hard to say that unequivocally happened, though you saw some gains with Payne. The final three games before the Maryland loss in the BTT looked better and even came with a couple wins, but they certainly got worse through February and that is concerning. Battle regressed, the offense was consistently stagnant and the defense was atrocious. There is so much work to do to even get back to mediocrity and I’m not convinced they established much of a foundation to build on for next year.

Ustreet - C-. Last season was a B-/C+ given the extensive roster turnover. This season was a D- because if I hand out an F I have to fill out extra paperwork and run it through multiple levels of administrative bureaucracy. It’s a whole thing.

It is impossible to look at a 9-22 overall season and think of anything other than close to failure. For a team that on paper was more talented than last year’s squad (GopherNation and I disagree on this point), it was extra frustrating to watch them fail to execute. Do I think this means that CBJ should be let go after this season? No. Do I think it is reasonable to warm up the seat? Yes.

GopherNation - C- is a fair grade this year in my opinion. It is hard to really gauge if the fault lies with coaching or just having a generally lower basketball IQ on this year’s team. There was more talent on this year’s squad but much of that talent was young and they were not ready to be major contributors in the Big Ten. There were clearly things that they could have done better, things like understanding how ball movement helps they offense, post entry when open, team defense, etc. Those may be more on coaching. But all along I thought this was a gap year for the program.

mowe0018 - D- . As previously mentioned, this was a historically catastrophic season for the Minnesota basketball program. It would be far more understandable (and perhaps a little more promising for next year) if this season had occurred last season and last season had occurred this season. Alas, this is not the case. The regression of the offense was eye-burning, especially considering Battle’s story arc (yes, injuries... but still, the efficiencies are atrocious). The only thing salvaging this from an F grade is the fact that effort was always there, even at the end of such a downer of a season, as displayed with late season victories over Rutgers and Nebraska (woof that’s a bummer of a sentence). The players appeared to never quit on Johnson and Johnson never quit on the players but does it matter if the coach doesn’t quit if he just has four guys standing around the arc with their hands on the hips for offense?

3 - There’s been a lot of talk the 4 freshmen who saw a lot of minutes for Minnesota. Collectively (we can get to them individually later) how do you feel about the future of the program based on this core of 4 freshmen (currently 3 freshmen with the Henley transfer)?

ZipsofAkron - There is at least something there. Payne is going to be legitimately good, especially once he cuts down on the fouls. It’s a bummer that they wasted a season’s worth of minutes on Henley, now that we know he was never going to stay, though I’m not sure where those minutes would have gone. Carrington looked like he started to figure it out toward the end of the season, and it’s a bummer that his nagging injury cut down on his minutes. Ola-Joseph looks like a nuts and bolts guy who is in the right spots at the right time. Can he become a Jordan Murphy type? I don’t think it’s an impact core next season, but I suppose if you get the right veteran transfers in the door they can coax out a little more output from this core. CBJ is going to have to show us his coaching chops.

Ustreet - Payne is going to be great. Henley is now gone. Kayden Betts is an unknown quantity. Carrington has the potential to be a solid 3 and D guy by the end of his career here. Joshua Ola-Joseph is an intriguing prospect for college. None of them other than Payne is a possible program changer.

GopherNation - I love this core of freshmen. They are all “good” and are the caliber of player who will be 4-year collegiate players. Payne is the potential exception, but he is clearly not a 1-and-done kind of guy either. This is a great base of players to begin to build your program around as they mature. What will be needed is a stud or two to go with these guys. Carrington, Ola-Joseph and Payne cover all three levels, have versatility and will be great veterans. Adding a great PG and a scoring wing would make for a really nice Big Ten lineup. They need to stick around!

mowe0018 - I will continue to be negative and state that we will continue to see similar results to this year if these three players are all starters next season. While Carrington’s form looks pure, the lack of overall shooting from these three is terrifying. While Payne could fill an Mbakwe-esque role, what difference will that make if the team provides no spacing and the defense continues to be sieve-like? I liked Ola-Joseph as a glue guy but where is the shot creation for others or individually between these three? There needs to be a quantum sophomore leap from somebody to give me any hope for the future.

4 - What do we need for next year to be more successful?

ZipsofAkron - This did not look like a high IQ team this year. They were way too bunched up on offense and consistently got lost on their assignments on defense. Whatever devil-may-care attitude they let fly in the final Nebraska game needs to be bottled up, because for once they finally looked unencumbered in that game and you could sense some confidence.

Unfortunately, they need to get better at basically everything. Their offensive efficiency was is in the toilet, they make way too many unforced errors and frankly, being dead last in free throw percentage is just embarrassing. On the other side of the ball they give up SO many second chances to opponents that there is very little chance they can stay in the game, between suspect rebounding and simply not forcing turnovers.

Ustreet - Make. A. Free. Throw. The free throw percentage is even worse because a lot of the misses were the front end of 1 and 1s. There are at least three games on the schedule for which the result would be reversed had the Gophers been an average free-throw shooting team.

Actually, make shots in general. The Gophers were 281st in the country in three-point shooting percentage, 259th in FG%, and last in the country in free throw percentages. Some of the problem is the current iteration of Minnesota’s offensive identity. Their base motion offense was often ineffective at getting good shooting opportunities, and the Gophers rarely moved the ball or made decisions on a .5 second clock. More of the offensive flow of the Big Ten Tournament game against Nebraska for next year please.

GopherNation - It is about two things. The current roster needs to get better at the little things. Ola-Joseph’s hands, careless turnovers, free throws, better closeout footwork, quick reaction to help side, etc. The game will slow down for these guys in year two and many of these issues will improve.

And then secondly it really depends on who they are able to snag in the transfer portal. If they get a scoring PG and a wing that contributes good minutes, then I think this team turns things around quickly. It wouldn’t at all hurt if Cooper decides to stick around for one more season.

mowe0018 - An actual offense that creates scoring opportunities for those who are best able to score. In this case, that would be Dawson Garcia at the elbows and block depending on his matchup, Payne in the post, or Carrington from the corner. I’m no offensive guru but there was a lot of lazy ball screen at the top and lack of motion off ball for my liking especially when scheme is often the only thing a team has to try to offset the talent disparity that we will inevitably be facing in a vast majority of our matchups next season.

5 - It is a very long way off, but what is your prediction for next year?

ZipsofAkron - If they finish above last place in the conference I will be surprised. Even a modest improvement keeps them in the bottom three teams and does this really look like a team that can all of a sudden add six more conference wins? This program is in big trouble — they don’t have an identity, they don’t have the facilities, they don’t have cache and they don’t have the NIL firepower to compete with other programs in their class. Unless CBJ can establish himself as a system coach that players want to actively come play for I fear that the vicious circle of underperformance and requisite transfers will hamstring Minnesota for the foreseeable future. It’s grim.

Ustreet - If they sniff the tournament, Johnson should get Coach of the Year.

GopherNation - I’m much more optimistic about next year than the rest of you. They are not going to make the Tournament and they will likely not be in bubble consideration. But I do expect a much more competitive season that results in more wins. I’ll throw out that this team will have 16 total wins and 7 of those are in the Big Ten. The roster is going to look so much different next fall. There may still be another player who leaves and we really have no idea who we’ll be bringing in from the portal. But this team will be better next year. Book it.

mowe0018 - Pain. Unless someone drops a huge NIL bomb on the program and we garner some impact transfers, last place in the Big Ten will very likely be our destiny.