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2015-16 Minnesota Golden Gophers Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and what fans should expect for the program heading into the 2015-16 season.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The ‘2015-16 BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2015-16 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers each team.

Most have remained optimistic about the Minnesota Golden Gophers, but after two straight seasons of regression and some significant offseason departures, many are starting to wonder about the direction of the program under head coach Richard Pitino. He was hired to replace Tubby Smith - who seemed to be perpetually stuck on the NCAA Tournament bubble despite having a lot of talent on the roster - but Pitino has yet to even field a team as good as Tubby's last team with Minnesota that went to the Round of 32 in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Of course, there are always transitions with new coaches and Pitino might fit that definition more than many recognize. His press style of play will take time to put in place and Pitino certainly has seemed to be doing well on the recruiting trail. Along with this, he might still be getting his feet as a head coach as he has only been a head coach for three seasons total. A learning curve seems reasonable.

Now, Pitino will have to hope that he can get Minnesota trending up to greater heights than his predecessor took the program. There are talented pieces on the team highlighted by players like Joey King and Nate Mason, but the Gophers lost a great core this offseason in Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, and Maurice Walker. Replacing these departures will not be easy, but that's Pitino's challenge this year.

The Gophers might still be a few years away from really competing in the Big Ten and at the national level, but there is more than enough talent to do some damage this year. A lot will depend on some of the younger players with the offseason losses, but it should be an interesting year and perhaps the start of an upward trend.

Most aren't quite sure on what to expect from Minnesota this year, so let's take a look at the Gophers.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Golden Gophers, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Daily Gopher Contributor UStreet breaking down Minnesota's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

Check Out Basketball Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with BTPowerhouse Podcast on BlogTalkRadio

1. 2014-15 Season Performance

  • Record: 18-15 (6-12)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #58
  • RPI Rating: #98
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Last season was an extremely frustrating one of the Golden Gophers. Though Minnesota was far from being a great team, it was probably a lot better than its 18-15 record indicated and probably should have at least been in the NIT with a bit of luck. The team did a decent job of taking care of business in the easier games, but was so underwhelming in the tight games and against good teams that most of it was for naught.

In fact, Minnesota's losses in Big Ten play really tell this story. Of Minnesota's 12 losses in conference play, 75% came by 10 points or less, 58.3% came against teams that went to the NCAA Tournament, and 58.3% came on the road. Again, this isn't pointed out to argue that Minnesota was a game away from a Big Ten title or a great NCAA Tournament seed, but simply to point out how close the team was to a much better season.

In my 2014-15 Big Ten Recapitulation Series, this is what I wrote about Minnesota's luck:

There's a reason why Minnesota finished at #342 in KenPom's luck metric. Every single Big Ten loss for Minnesota this season either came against an NCAA Tournament team, on the road, or by 10 points or less. That statement certainly does not prove Minnesota was a great team, but it does show that they probably were not your typical 6-12 team in the Big Ten. Even with slight improvement, they're looking at .500 or better in the Big Ten.

A couple more wins probably wouldn't have made last year a successful one for Minnesota, but it probably would have pushed the Gophers into the NIT. That may not sound great, but at least the team would have had something to show for last season instead of just a 18-15 record with no postseason appearance. Unfortunately, that's not how things happened and Minnesota just came up short time and time again in conference play.

Highlights of the season included a win over Georgia in non-conference play, a three game winning streak in conference play against Iowa, Nebraska, and Purdue, and a road win over Michigan State. Georgia ended up making the NCAA Tournament, the three game streak included Minnesota's only back-to-back wins in conference play, and the Spartans ended up going to the Final Four. Low points of the season included a five game skid to open conference play, a home loss to Northwestern, and being swept by Penn State.

Individual statistical leaders were Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, and Maurice Walker.. Hollins led the team in minutes, points. Mathieu led the team in assists and steals. Walker led the team in rebounds, blocks, usage, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

1516 minnesota offseason departures

Since the start of last season, Minnesota has lost a total of seven players for a variety of reasons. These players were Elliott Eliason, Andre Hollins, Josh Martin, Deandre Mathieu, Daquein McNeil, Kendall Shell, and Maurice Walker. Five of these players graduated, one transferred, and one was suspended from the team. Of these seven players, the most significant losses came from Hollins, Mathieu, and Walker. In fact, of the other four players, the only one to even play in 15 games was Eliason.

It's difficult to spin the losses of Hollins, Mathieu, and Walker as anything other than massive for Minnesota heading into next season. All three players were in the top six on the roster in total minutes and led every significant statistical category for the team last season. Along with this, the role of best player on the team was probably between Hollins and Walker, so the team might be losing its best two players.

1415 minnesota advanced stats

There are certainly players left on the roster who can attempt to fill some of these gaps, but the Gophers are losing the team's two leading scorers, its best backcourt player, its best frontcourt player, and another player who got starters minutes in the backcourt. Just in these three departures, Minnesota's two strongest positional groups take some massive hits.

Along with the losses of Hollins, Mathieu, and Walker, the Gophers also lost four other players. The losses of Martin and McNeil probably won't be felt significantly since both were gone early in last season. Along with this, the loss of Shell isn't huge considering he only played 45 minutes all season. However, the loss of Eliason is notable. He averaged 11.2 minutes and severed as a backup to Walker last season. Normally, the loss of Eliason wouldn't be huge, but since Walker is out the door, it's going to put a lot of pressure on the roster's remaining big men.

The other thing to note about these other four departures is that they represent a pretty big blow to the team's long-term depth options. Eliason and Shelly were both seniors, so their departures were expected, but both Martin and McNeil were underclassmen. Neither had outstanding recruiting rankings, but these are the type of backups that ease transitions and Minnesota needed that depth desperately this season. They were the transition pieces and now the Gophers are going to have to survive on what's left until next year's recruiting class arrives on campus.

Overall, Minnesota is losing a lot this offseason. There are still some talented players and some key newcomers that should ease the transition, but there will also be some growing pains. The optimistic view is that these departures are coming from a team that wasn't all that great last season, but of course, that will also make it more challenging to take the next step as a team in the upcoming season.

3. New Additions

2015 247Sports Recruiting Team Rankings

This season, the Golden Gophers will be adding five new recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Kevin Dorsey, Ahmad Gilbert, Jarvis Johnson, Dupree McBrayer, and Jordan Murphy. Dorsey is rated as a 4-star prospect and the remaining four recruits are 3-star prospects according to 247Sports. Dorsey and Johnson are point guards, McBrayer is a shooting guard, and Gilbert and Murphy are small forwards.

The incoming recruit receiving the most hype is Dorsey. Not only is he the prospect receiving the most accolades from the scouting services, but he also comes in at a position of need. With the loss of Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu, the Gophers desperately need contributors in the backcourt. Dorsey might not be able to be a star from day one, but he does seem like a player that could lock down a starting role early.

McBrayer is going to have to fight for minutes behind Dorsey and Mason, but does have a good shot to be the primary backcourt option off the bench. Gilbert and Murphy will also both have to fight for minutes on a wing that has proven options in Joey King and Carlos Morris and a proven depth option in Charles Buggs. The final recruit is Jarvis Johnson, but he has actually been ruled ineligible to play due to health issues. He will still be a member of the team, but will not actually see the court.

Along with the recruiting additions, Minnesota is adding two transfers in Davonte Fitzgerald from Texas A&M and Reggie Lynch from Illinois State. Unfortunately for the Gophers, both players will be ineligible this year due to NCAA transfer rules. Fitzgerald is expected to contribute on the wing and has a solid mix of rebounding and shooting skills that could make him a matchup issue. Lynch should fit into the frontcourt and is a dynamic shot blocker. In fact, he led the nation in block rate last season.

It's not hard to see many of these players getting serious time during their respective Minnesota careers, but expecting a ton from these players this season is probably a tad unrealistic. Projecting true freshmen is more of an art than a science, but the only player that looks like an instant starter is Dorsey. These additions should help Minnesota's depth significantly, but there probably isn't a ton of instant impact type of talent coming into Minneapolis.

Of course, the positive news about these additions is that a good hunk of Minnesota's lineup in 2016-17 could be composed of these newcomers, especially considering the transfers. This isn't the type of recruiting class that will make Minnesota a great team by itself, but will certainly help fill out the roster effectively.

4. Team Strengths

With so many key offseason departures, how Minnesota's roster shakes out is still unclear, but there are some areas where Minnesota should be strong this season. The biggest areas where the Gophers should thrive is in forcing opponent turnovers and in shooting from outside.

Here's what I wrote in last year's team retrospective for Minnesota:

Offensively, Minnesota relied primarily on two things.  These were efficient, but not explosive play inside from Joey King and Maurice Walker and perimeter shooting from Joey King, Andre Hollins, and Nate Mason.  In all reality, it was a relatively diverse offense that relied on a slew of contributors.  Unlike the other bottom teams in the Big Ten standings, this was not a team that was built around one or two players.  The Gophers, of course, had their top guys, but the contributions were much more evenly dispersed.

. . .

Defensively, Minnesota's clear strength was in forcing turnovers and creating steals against opponents.  This should come as no surprise considering the Gophers use a press system, but to rank #6 in steal rate and #7 in defensive turnover rate nationally are not things to overlook.  They also easily topped the Big Ten in both categories during conference play.

Offensively, the losses of players like Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, and Maurice Walker will be a pretty big hit, but one area where Minnesota should still be dangerous is from long range. The loss of the efficient play inside might put more pressure on the team's shooters, but this still looks like a strength on paper.

The biggest returns for the Gophers in terms of shooting comes from Joey King, and Nate Mason, Carlos Morris. These three players combined to shoot 124-322 (.385) from 3PT range last season, which was a huge reason for why the Gophers finished #59 nationally in 3PT percentage. Even if some of the newcomers don't shoot well, this core should at least be a good core to work with next year.

Defensively, the Gophers should continue Pitino's press system and pressure of the ball. Under Pitino, there has been a clear trend in pressuring the ball and with another year, that trend should only continue this season. Finding interior defense will be an issue, but pressuring the ball should not be an issue.

pitino defensive press steal numbers

As one can see, the defensive style morphed significantly during Pitino's two seasons. Now, with another year and the return of Mason - Minnesota's leader in steal rate last season - watch for more progress here. The inexperience could be an issue in trying to press the ball without mistakes, but this should still be a great pressing team.

Minnesota will have a lot of questions this season including how to find replacements for several key offseason departures, but the team's outside shooting and ability to create turnovers should still be areas of strengths. If the Gophers can work around this areas with the newcomers, this could be a pretty productive roster.

5. Team Weaknesses

There are some major red flags for Minnesota's team this season, but none are larger than those that come out of the frontcourt. The position was inconsistent last year and now with the losses of Elliott Eliason and Maurice Walker, there are even more questions this year. How the team will protect the paint and rebound the ball will be major questions about the Gophers all season.

Last season, the Gophers were a pretty average team at blocking shots. Minnesota finished #158 nationally in block rate, #171 nationally in team blocks, and had just one player in the top 30 of the Big Ten in block rate. The team was far from terrible in the area, but it was also far from being great as well.

However, with the offseason departures, it's going to be a major challenge for Minnesota to even get where it was last year in this area. The team is not only losing its two leaders in blocked shots, but easily the team's best shot blocker in Walker. In fact, Carlos Morris is the team's leading return in blocker rate of contributors and he was just #45 in the Big Ten last season in block rate. Not exactly a reassuring statistic.

Rebounding will also be a major red flag. Unlike Minnesota's shot blocking numbers, the Gophers were not even averaging in rebounding as a team last season. In fact, the only player on the roster to finish above 40th in defensive rebounding rate was Maurice Walker. It was a massive regression for the team.

1415 minnesota team rebounding regression

Similar to the blocking stats, what's even more concerning is that the team's two leading rebounders are out the door and four of the team's top seven rebounders have departed. Bakary Konate was solid on the defensive boards when he did see the floor, but his limited playing time leaves some question marks.

Minnesota has the chance to be a decent rebounding team next year, but the newcomers will have to make an impact and Konate will have to not only play how he did last year, but probably do even better as well. Realistically, this will likely be a weaker spot for the Gophers all season.

Overall, there are a lot of question marks for Minnesota this season, but the frontcourt is going to be a major area of concern and in particular, the team's blocking and rebounding. If the Gophers can find answers to these questions, it has a chance to be a solid team, but otherwise, it could be a tough go this year.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, there was some disagreement on the team's best player, but for the most part, the discussion centered around Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, and Maurice Walker. All three were proven contributors and were expected to maintain that high level of production. By the end of the season, those predictions were well founded as all three were massive contributors for the Gophers.

1415 minnesota kenpom mvps

However, with these three players leaving the roster, there is a lot of uncertainty as to who will be the leader for Minnesota this year. Some of the key returners are Joey King, Nate Mason, and Carlos Morris and while they have shown plenty of consistency, none has risen to that next level. It's one thing to be a solid starter, but an entirely different thing to be a team's star player.

Similarly, none of the newcomers really pop out on a first glance either. Kevin Dorsey looks to be the best prospect and will have a pretty open path to major minutes next season, but he's still a true freshman. Minnesota's incoming recruiting class looks fine, but expecting any of the newcomers to become Minnesota's leading contributor this season is probably unrealistic.

Overall, it's kind of a moving picture on who will be the leader for Minnesota's team next season. However, considering that Mason might have been the best of the returners last year and was just a freshman, he probably deserves the nod in this discussion. King and Morris certainly have a shot as well, but Mason is probably the player with the most upside out of the three and will need to play well in the backcourt for the Gophers to be a successful team.

7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/1 - Minnesota-Crookston (Exhibition)
  • 11/6 - Southwestern Minnesota State (Exhibition)
  • 11/13 - UMKC
  • 11/15 - Louisiana-Monroe
  • 11/19 - vs Temple (San Juan, Puerto Rico)
  • 11/20 - vs Butler/Missouri State (San Juan, Puerto Rico)
  • 11/22 - vs Miami/Mississippi State/Texas Tech/Utah (San Juan, Puerto Rico)
  • 11/27 - Nebraska-Omaha
  • 11/30 - Clemson
  • 12/5 - South Dakota
  • 12/8 - South Dakota State
  • 12/12 - vs Oklahoma State (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
  • 12/16 - Chicago State
  • 12/23 - Milwaukee
  • 12/30 - at Ohio State
  • 1/2 - Michigan State
  • 1/5 - at Penn State
  • 1/9 - Northwestern
  • 1/12 - at Nebraska
  • 1/16 - Indiana
  • 1/20 - at Michigan
  • 1/23 - Illinois
  • 1/27 - Purdue
  • 1/30 - at Indiana
  • 2/4 - at Northwestern
  • 2/10 - Michigan
  • 2/14 - at Iowa
  • 2/18 - Maryland
  • 2/23 - Rutgers
  • 2/28 - at Illinois
  • 3/2 - Wisconsin
  • 3/5 - at Rutgers

Minnesota is set to have a decent, but not great non-conference slate this year. The Gophers are not projected to be a major player on the national stage and this schedule reflects that fact. There are a handful of interesting games, but even the most intriguing matchups are against what should be good, but not great teams. The schedule is about what one would expect for this type of team, but it is a bit underwhelming.

Outside of the traditional non-conference filler, the interesting games on this slate are the home games against Clemson and South Dakota State, the neutral site matchup with Oklahoma State, and the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in late November. Realistically, outside of the potential matchups with Butler and Utah in Puerto Rico, this looks like a pretty manageable slate for the Gophers.

To start, the home games against Clemson and South Dakota State should be wins. Both teams finished in the top 100 on KenPom and had winning records last season. Of course, with both games at home, these two have to still lean in Minnesota's favor. Along with this, Oklahoma State loses a bunch this offseason and the game should have a home-type feel for Minnesota since it's in South Dakota. The Gophers have to feel good about those games.

Puerto Rico will be pretty tough, but all told, the remaining non-conference slate looks pretty manageable for Minnesota. A lot will obviously depend upon how the newcomers fit into the lineup this season, but realistically speaking, the Gophers will likely be sitting somewhere around 10-3 or 11-2 heading into conference play. This assumes Minnesota will drop a game or two in Puerto Rico and drop at least one of the other ones.

Of course, the Big Ten is going to be a different story. The conference should be loaded this year and the Gophers will certainly feel that in the team's conference slate. In total, Minnesota will play 15 of its 18 conference games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, are projected to be in the top 25 this season, or are on the road. Trying to even break even against that slate is brutal.

However, the one relief that Minnesota gets in conference play is that things are spaced out for the Gophers. Minnesota has pretty manageable road-home splits and even during the one time Minnesota gets back-to-back road games, one is set against Northwestern. The opening slate will be tough with Ohio State and Michigan State as the first two games respectively, but look for Minnesota to avoid the massive skids that doomed it last season.

With so much turnover on Minnesota's roster, nailing down a conference record is pretty tough. Still, given the level of competition, the Gophers should have a conference record somewhere between three and eight games. The newcomers will have to be great immediately to hit the top of that, so expect somewhere in the four to five range. Minnesota should be in most of these games, but the schedule difficulty is just so high this year.

Overall, this is a challenging schedule for Minnesota, but given the state of the program, this is probably right around what fans should have realistically expected coming into the season. The conference schedule is going to be absolutely brutal, but if Minnesota can take care of business, a solid performance isn't out of the picture.

8. Projected Startling Lineup

  • PG: Kevin Dorsey (Fr.) - 70%

  • SG: Nate Mason (So.) - 90%

  • SF: Carlos Morris (Sr.) - 80%

  • PF: Joey King (Sr.) - 75%

  • C: Bakary Konate (Sr.) - 60%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

The backcourt should be pretty predictable for Minnesota next season. A reasonable guess would put both Kevin Dorsey and Nate Mason in the starting lineup. Dorsey is probably the team's best incoming prospect and Mason might be the best player on the roster for this season. The only question mark will be whether Dorsey can live up to his hype early. If not, it may force Pitino to move Mason over to point guard and insert someone else at shooting guard.

Unfortunately, Minnesota's backcourt depth is pretty thin. Though Carlos Morris could move over if needed, his best fit seems to be on the wing. Outside of moving Morris over to shooting guard, the backcourt is basically going to be Dorsey, Mason, and incoming recruit Dupree McBrayer. As long as Dorsey is ready to go and McBrayer can play 10 to 20 minutes off the bench, this position should be fine because Mason can move around if needed.

Last season, the wing group might have been Minnesota's weakest, but not so this year. Morris is set to lock down the small forward role and Joey King should grab the power forward spot as he did last year. There's also some decent depth here with Charles Buggs and Gaston Diedhiou off the bench.

Even if Morris has to slide over to shooting guard and the wing loses a starter, this group should be fine with inserting Buggs into the lineup and using true freshmen Ahmad Gilbert and Jordan Murphy off the bench. Neither recruit is expected to make an immediate splash, but it's not hard to see one or both developing into a respectable bench player this season. Even if the wing group turns out not to be as great as expected, it's certainly pretty deep.

The frontcourt is a mystery. Based on last season, Bakary Konate looks like a shoe-in to start and Diedhiou should serve as his primary backup, but anticipating the level of production is pretty difficult. Both were just freshmen last year and weren't terrible, but weren't good either. Unfortunately, due the offseason attrition, there just isn't a lot of depth here, so realistically, Minnesota's going to have to have to ride with these two for better or worse. King can move over in the event of injury, but if he starts playing significant minutes here, it's not going to be a good sign for Minnesota.

Outside of the frontcourt, Minnesota actually looks like it can field a pretty solid and diverse lineup. Depending on how some of the newcomers shake out, Pitinio has the ability to move several players around. Depth is going to be an issue and the Gophers really need one of those frontcourt guys to break out, but this should at least be a decent lineup.

9. Team Perspective From UStreet of The Daily Gopher

"Minnesota will go through a transitional season, and fans should expect growth pains. After the losses of Andre Hollins and Mo Walker, the Gophers have many unknowns on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. They are also inexperienced, with eight scholarship underclassmen expected to contribute this season. Fans and casual observers should expect a team that will compete, but is not expected to win many games.

Nate Mason is Minnesota's best returner. After a solid freshmen year campaign, Mason will be expected to carry the scoring burden. He is a good passer, with a quick first step and the ability to step back and hit from downtown.

Mason will be joined in the starting lineup by Bakary Konate, Carlos Morris, and either Charles Buggs or Joey King. Morris, Buggs, and King are known commodities who would be excellent depth players on an NCAA contender. All of them have the ability to score, but do so in different ways. Morris is a volume shooter with a fondness for difficult shots. He needs to improve his shot selection to be a true scoring threat. King and Buggs both have the ability to hit corner threes, but King is more willing to post up inside. Buggs has the most potential of any of the upper classmen. He has all the physical tools to be a great college player, but his career has been marred by inconsistency. 

Konate is an exciting prospect based on his size and athleticism. He has the potential to be an All Big Ten caliber player during his career, but it is unlikely to be this year. Konate will have to learn to play without fouling, as well as develop a more polished inside game. 

Richard Pitino's recruiting strategy targets athletes with the ability guard multiple positions, and it is evidenced throughout this class. Kevin Dorsey leads Minnesota's youth movement. The 4 star recruit out of Maryland has drawn lots of praise from Pitino. He can play either the 1 or the 2, and should start soon into the year. The other top recruits are Jordan Murphy, a three star composite recruit out of Texas. Murphy previously committed to VCU, and fans should expect him to be a top athlete with the ability to guard multiple positions. Finally, Dupree McBrayer and Ahmad Gilbert, both guards, will provide additional backcourt depth. 

Overall expectations for the season are low. The Gophers are unlikely to make the NCAA tournament, both because of a lack of top end talent and a tough schedule. Minnesota plays almost every Big Ten contender through the year, and has a non conference schedule charitably described as gross. I see the Gophers in the bottom third of the Big Ten, with an upset of a good team late in the year. Based on schedule, I think it's Maryland who comes to Williams Arena late in the year in a classic trap game scenario." - UStreet.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Minnesota is at an interesting spot as a program. There is a lot of talent set to arrive (and become eligible) next season, but unfortunately, Gopher fans will have to wait to see it in action. There is certainly talent on this year's team, but overcoming the massive offseason departures and depth issues is going to be very challenging for a pretty young Minnesota team this season.

Players like Joey King, Nate Mason, and Carlos Morris could be set to put together a nice three man show for the Gophers this season, but outside of them, there are a lot of question marks. Charles Buggs was a solid backup player last season and incoming recruit Kevin Dorsey has a lot of potential, but are either going to be major contributors this year? It seems unlikely, which could leave Pitino and staff searching for answers.

Along with the backcourt and newcomers, the frontcourt is also a major question mark. There isn't a ton of depth and even the players that are there like Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate are completely unproven. The wing group looks to have a lot of proven options and depth, but if the frontcourt can't find answers and the starters in a very thin backcourt can't produce, the impact of the wings could be diminished, especially if players are forced to play out of position in the lineup.

Of course, if Dorsey is ready and some of the players like Konate and Mason can take a step forward this offseason, the Gophers have plenty of potential. There is talent on this team, but with all of these concerns, it's hard to see Minnesota finishing anywhere in the Big Ten except the bottom.

Big Ten Prediction: 12th Place