People crammed into a crowded Williams Arena in November with faith that this season would be great and expectations would be met. Halfway through the season, experts and fans alike were all impressed by the way the team was performing. And then, everything was derailed. Al Nolen got injured and was lost for the season. The season became a waste as the Gophers only salvaged one win in their final 11 games. I spoke with Tom (Gopher Nation) of The Daily Gopher to recap and talk about the Minnesota Golden Gopher season.
BTP: The expectations for this season were higher than it has been in a long time. How did the Gophers perform compared to your expectations?
TDG: I think it is impossible to view this past season as anything other than a major disappointment. At the beginning of the season I assumed this would be a Tourney team that would be in the 8, 9 or 10 seed area. Then they started the year playing very well and suddenly this looked like a potential Sweet 16 team, or at least a 5 or 6 seed. But then the wheels fell off the bus on the road to the Tourney and this was an epic collapse, even for Gopher fans who expect epic collapses. The first 20 games were fun to watch, the last 11 games were the equivalent of watching Butler / UConn over and over again (we were Butler).
Out of all of the early wins and fantastic finishes for the Golden Gophers, what was the best win of the season?
TDG: Best win of the season was a neutral court win over North Carolina. The five point win in Puerto Rico showed us what he blueprint should have been for the entire season. Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson dominated the paint, Blake Hoffarber hit five threes on his way to 20 points and Al Nolen was his typical 7 points, 4 assists and 3 steals. But that was the last of seeing a team with a deep bench and complimentary play from its backcourt and frontcourt.
(More after the jump!!!)
BTP: Consequently, what was the worst loss of the year?
TDG: Losing at Indiana was the worst loss for me. Blowing late leads at home to Michigan State, home to Michigan and at Penn State were bad and one could make the argument that they were the worst losses. But the road loss to last place Indiana was the one that got the ball rolling in the wrong way for the next nine games. The inability to score, especially down the stretch and close out teams we should have been beating was the bad dream we were going to be forced to watch the rest of the season.
BTP: There were some moments in the season where you can look back at the moment in 5 or 10 years and still be excited or proud that it happened. What was the best moment of this season in your opinion?
TDG: Best moment was probably winning the Puerto Rico Shootout. The Gophers beat #8 North Carolina and a good West Virginia team en route to the tourney title. This was the game that put us back on the national radar as a team that might be good enough to win a couple games in the NCAA Tournament.
BTP: Coming into the season, the Big Ten knew about Blake Hoffarber and a few of the other Gophers that Minnesota had. But, overall, which player was the most surprising?
TDG: Trevor Mbakwe was this team's most surprising player. He came into the season as a pretty big unknown. We all knew that best case scenario he would lead the Big Ten in rebounding and give the Gophers some toughness inside that we haven't had in a very long time. But best case scenario isn't usually what actually happens. He was one of the best big men in the conference and made good on his preseason goal to lead the league in rebounding.
BTP: With a season full of disappointments after a horrendous collapse, it’s hard to decipher a single person or moment that put the damper on the season. Who was the biggest disappointment?
TDG: Hard to pick a biggest disappointment on a roster of disappointments. Devoe Joseph disappointed us all by not accepting his role and choosing to take his talents to Oregon instead. Ralph Sampson continued to disappoint by playing soft in the paint, not playing with an ounce of passion and appearing as though he didn't care if we won or lost. Rodney Williams failed to come even close to living up to expectations of possibly being a lottery pick in this upcoming NBA draft. The athletically gifted wing didn't develop his basketball skills to go along with his superior athletic ability. But more than all of that I think Gopher fans are disappointed that after four years this program isn't further along. It is in a MUCH better place than it was four years ago and some have far too great of expectations thinking Tubby would have us in the Final Four by now. But year four should not have seen our fifth transfer in the span of 13 months, year four should not have seen backcourt depth that thin and year four should not have been a missed NCAA Tournament.
BTP: The Golden Gophers graduate two senior guards in Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen. What about them will be the hardest to replace?
TDG: The player hardest to replace will be the guy who we didn't have for half of the season. At a very simplistic level the Gophers were 11-3 with their senior point guard and 6-11 without him. The awful record without him can also be attributed to having last year's backup PG transfer, this year's best guard off the bench transfering as well and then having an average true freshman being forced to pick up his minutes. But Nolen was also the guy with the ball in his hands when the game was on the line. He was the only one capable of getting to the basket when needed and he was the best defensive player on this roster. Losing him to injury ruined the season and he'll be very difficult to replace.
BTP: There is still a lot of hope in the Barnyard and at Williams Arena. What are you most looking forward to this next season?
TDG: A new backcourt! We currently have three incoming guards who by all accounts will be capable of scoring. They are not great shooters but they are athletic guards who can score, we haven't had that in a while. Assuming they can defend this should be a fun backcourt to pair a very good frontcourt headlined by Trevor Mbakwe.
BTP: Finally, every season it seems like another hectic one for Gopher Nation and Tubby Smith because of all the rumors of him leaving to go to a new school. Well, this marked the end of his fourth year in his journey with Minnesota. Could you evaluate how he is doing?
TDG: I believe that Tubby is doing fine. He isn't surpassing expectations but he has elevated the program from the awful state that it was in. Fans are getting tired of consistently finishing around .500 in the conference and placing in the middle of the Big Ten pack. At some point this team needs to take a big step forward and contend for a Big Ten title or at the very least finish 3rd or 4th. That isn't asking too much. But on the other hand this program had finished 9th or worse in the Big Ten three of the four years prior to Smith's arrival. Five years ago we would have been pretty happy to finish 6th and make the NCAA tournament two out of three years. But expectations rise quickly. He hasn't done well enough to erect a statue of him outside of The Barn but he brought us from a bottom of the league team to a middle of the pack team. Time to take another step forward.