Losing the best player on the team a few weeks into the season. A 0-3 start to begin conference play. A head coach that seems rather lackluster on the bench. It’s the making of a long and tiresome rest of the season to Minnesota.
The final opportunity for the Golden Gophers on Wednesday night at home against the Iowa Hawkeyes demonstrated on how the team will be run during the course of the schedule. After Iowa battled back against Minnesota at the Barn, the Hawkeyes denied themselves of a guaranteed victory by missing a handful of free throws. With five seconds left and snagging the defensive rebounds, Minnesota decided to not call its final timeout. Instead, sophomore Maverick Ahanmisi drove the length of the court and tried to lay in an acrobatic shot. The ball rimmed out, and the Golden Gophers became o-for.
At the start of the season, the Minnesota Golden Gophers fans didn’t have a lot to be assured about during the upcoming season. They knew that inconsistent scoring, an unorganized starting lineup, and having more and more players coming in and out of Coach Tubby Smith’s tenure were going to be an issue. Yet, there the Golden Gophers had something that they could be reassured on…and his name was Trevor Mbakwe. A month into the season, Mbakwe fell awkwardly on the floor and tore his ACL, forcing Mbakwe to hang up his jersey for the remainder of the season.
After that happened, Tubby Smith had a lot of work to do with the lineup. Without a ton of talent, and no players standing up and making the Gophers contenders, they floundered into Big Ten play hoping not to get clobbered.
The first Big Ten game for the Gophers was a pleasant surprise for many viewers. Minnesota was able to contend throughout the game and pushed them into a game-winning opportunity on the road in Illinois. The team was up two with seconds to go, but junior Julian Welch missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Illinois capitalized by tying the game before the buzzer. It took a second overtime to take care of Minnesota, but the Fighting Illini were able to win because the Golden Gophers had nothing left in them by the score of 81-72. Senior Ralph Sampson III had his best game of the season with 22 points and nine rebounds.
Minnesota found themselves in contention at Michigan only a couple days later due to bad shooting by both teams. Smith has forced Minnesota to play at its strength, and that’s defense. Without allowing Tim Hardaway Jr. and Evan Smotrycz to beat them, it was another game in which the Gophers had a fighter’s chance. In the end, it wasn’t enough.
Finally, the team was able to head home to a place where they were undefeated on the season. Minnesota was up by as much as 11 in the first half, but was careless with the basketball late in the half. During the second half, the Hawkeyes decided to go zone against Minnesota. That tactic absolutely stomped on any offensive chance the Gophers had. And, so the story goes, Minnesota lost 64-62.
Sure, the Gophers are only 12-4 on the season, but they haven’t beaten anyone good. Virginia Tech, DePaul, and USC are decent victories, but none of those teams will be putting banners in their rafters anytime soon. Minnesota had a chance to win each of its first conference games. To be 3-0 and heading into its next three out of four against Purdue, Penn State, and Northwestern, the season could have totally been different for the Gophers. It’s hard to imagine this team to muster more than several conference wins over the course of the season without any consistent scoring. Rodney Williams is arguably Minnesota’s best option on the floor without Mbakwe, but he has yet to find his shot, even as a junior.
If Mbakwe is unable to get a medical redshirt and Williams decides to go pro, the starting lineup for Minnesota becomes Welch, Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins, Mo Walker, and Elliott Eliason; none of which are true playmakers. The crowd in the Twin Cities is finally getting off of the Tubby Smith praise, and if that continues, Minnesota’s road is looking longer and longer back to being back to prominence in the Big Ten.