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The Minnesota Golden Gophers Were The Big Ten's Most Frustrating Team In 2014-15

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A look back at the 2014-15 season for the Golden Gophers through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations for the season.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 BTPowerhouse Recapitulation Series will look back at the season of each Big Ten team through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations in 2014-15.  The series will be released during early summer in reverse order of conference standings, meaning the last place team will be reviewed first and the Big Ten champions will be reviewed last.

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The 2014-15 season was a frustrating one for Minnesota.  Though the Gophers were nowhere near outstanding during the 2013-14 season, they returned the vast majority of a lineup that won the NIT, brought in several key recruits to their roster, and generally, were expected to take the next step forward.  Over the course of the season, Minnesota was unable to live up to that optimism despite showing plenty of promise.

Let's look back at it it in its entirety.

1. Preseason Expectations

Though it's impossible to perfectly predict how a given team will perform before a season, there is usually at least a general consensus on how a team will perform.  By looking at the previous season, the roster changes, and the coaching staff, some teams are easy to place.  Coming into the 2014-15 season, Minnesota was a team that was difficult to place.  Generally, it looked like the team was going to take a step forward since they brought back the vast majority of the lineup that had just gone 25-13, but they were also losing arguably their second best player and had no clear additions that would move them forward.  The team was decent the year before, but there was a mix on whether they would take a step forward, sustain their play, or slide back with the loss of Austin Hollins.  For me, these questions led me to rank Minnesota at #9 in the Big Ten in my Big Ten preview, but I was relatively open and optimistic about them moving from there.

Here was my preseason storyline for Minnesota:

The biggest storyline for Minnesota this season will undoubtedly center around Richard Pitino and the growth and direction of the program.  Pitino was not necessarily a proven hire for Minnesota last season, but he represented a young coach with a lot of potential.  He showed much of it last season by coaching the Golden Gophers to an NIT title, but Year 2 could arguably be even more challenging as the program looks to build off a successful first year.  The return of Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu highlight the roster, but young prospects like Joey King could represent where the program is headed under Pitino.  If King and some of the newcomers including transfer Carlos Morris can step up, Minnesota has the potential to get back to the NCAA Tournament and seriously challenge the top segment of the Big Ten this season.

The Big Ten writers actually viewed my projection as a bit too low and put Minnesota at #6 in their preseason Big Ten standings behind Michigan and ahead of Iowa.  The Gophers were in my third "tier" of teams of the Big Ten as I thought they had potential, but didn't have enough upside to get me to bump them up.  This was a decent team that returned a lot and could crack the top group if things went right, but would most likely be toward the middle of the conference by season's end.

2. Non-Conference Play

With the way Minnesota finished the 2013-14 season, expectations were high for a fast start to non-conference play.  The Gophers had closed the previous season with 5 straight wins and wins in 8 of their final 10 games with their only losses coming to Big Ten champion Michigan and Final Four team Wisconsin.  Minnesota would start with a really talented Louisville squad on a neutral court, but frankly, didn't have many challenges beyond the Cards on its non-conference slate.  If the Gophers played anywhere near their potential, this looked like a team and a schedule that would have one or two losses at most entering Big Ten play.  Here is how things ended up playing out.

Minnesota 2014-15 Non-Conference:
  • Loss (0-1): Louisville, 81-68
  • Win (1-1): Western Kentucky, 76-54
  • Win (2-1): Franklin Pierce, 109-57
  • Win (3-1): UMBC, 69-51
  • Win (3-2): St. John's, 70-61
  • Win (4-2): Georgia, 66-62
  • Win (5-2): Wake Forest, 84-69
  • Win (6-2): Western Carolina, 84-64
  • Win (7-2): North Dakota, 92-56
  • Win (8-2): Southern, 85-57
  • Win (9-2): Seattle, 92-57
  • Win (10-2): Furman, 86-76
  • Win (11-2): UNC Wilmington, 108-82
Overall, Minnesota's non-conference performance was solid this season.  They played 13 games, went 11-2 with the only losses coming against a really good Louisville team and eventual NCAA Tournament team St. John's in a road game.  On top of that, Minnesota beat every team they should have beaten, went undefeated at home, and knocked off a quality win over Georgia on a neutral court.  In fact, one could make an argument that it was one of the better non-conference performances in the Big Ten.

Unfortunately, despite racking up 11 wins, only Minnesota's win over Georgia was a Top 100 RPI win and only the wins over Georgia, NC-Wilmington, and Western Kentucky were Top 150 RPI wins.  To put this in perspective, Purdue even had two Top 100 RPI wins in non-conference play and the Boilermakers had one of the worst non-conference performance in the Big Ten this season.

Minnesota avoided losses in non-conference play, but the Gophers didn't really face anyone outside of the four games bolded on the list above.  Plus, it's hard to make an argument that even four of Minnesota's non-conference opponents were quality teams considering that Wake Forest ended up being ranked #150 in RPI by season's end.  Minnesota certainly didn't have anything close to a bad non-conference performance but the lopsided nature of three really good teams and 10 underwhelming opponents made them relatively unproven despite an 11-2 record heading into Big Ten play.

3. Conference Play

The good thing for the Gophers is that they would get plenty of quality opponents in the early portion of Big Ten play.  Minnesota had the number of wins it needed, but it needed quality opponents and road wins to strengthen their resume.  Many thought Minnesota had a serious shot at the NCAA Tournament as they finished non-conference play, but until they could get more than one quality win over Georgia in November, they would need to prove themselves in Big Ten play.  Here is how they performed.

Minnesota 2014-15 Big Ten Play:
  • Loss (0-1): Purdue, 72-68
  • Loss (0-2): Maryland, 70-58
  • Loss (0-3): Ohio State, 74-72 OT
  • Loss (0-4): Michigan, 62-57
  • Loss (0-5): Iowa, 77-75
  • Win (1-5): Rutgers, 89-80
  • Loss (1-6): Nebraska, 52-49
  • Win (2-6): Illinois, 79-71
  • Loss (2-7): Penn State, 63-58
  • Win (3-7): Nebraska, 60-42
  • Win (4-7): Purdue, 62-58
  • Win (5-7): Iowa, 64-59
  • Loss (5-8): Indiana, 90-71
  • Loss (5-9): Northwestern, 72-66
  • Loss (5-10): Wisconsin, 63-53
  • Win (6-10): Michigan State, 96-90 OT
  • Loss (6-11): Wisconsin, 76-63
  • Loss (6-12): Penn State, 79-76
Perhaps no team had a more frustrating performance in Big Ten play this season.  The Gophers were not a great team and that became evident fairly quickly, but they also probably were not as bad as their eventual conference record showed.  They ended with a 6-12 record in Big Ten play, but one can't help but wonder what it may have been if the Gophers had a bit more luck.  Just look at how Minnesota's 12 losses in conference play broke down.
Minnesota's Big Ten Losses:
  • 75% by 10 points or less
  • 58.3% against NCAA Tournament teams
  • 58.3% on the road
Those stats alone are compelling, but when you look at them together, their impact really is telling.  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 probably not your typical 6-12 team in the Big Ten.  Even with slight improve, they're looking at .500 or better in the Big Ten.

Along with this, the really unfortunate thing for Minnesota was that these brutal losses started at the beginning of Big Ten play.  The Gophers opened with three of their first four games on the road, but there was hope that Minnesota could steal at least one game against Michigan or Purdue on the road and potentially pull off an upset against Maryland.  However, Minnesota not only lost all three of these games, but they also dropped home games against Ohio State and Iowa, pushing the team to 0-5 to start Big Ten play.

The Gophers did lead a valiant charge to get things back on track following its five straight losses to open Big Ten play and won 5 of their next 7 games, but losses to Nebraska and Penn State during that stretch coupled with the 0-5 start already put Minnesota on thin ice by mid-February.  In all reality, it would have taken a really impressive finish in the team's final six regular season games to have real hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, they then dropped their next three games to Indiana, Northwestern, and Wisconsin.  Even though road losses to Indiana and Wisconsin weren't bad, a home loss to Northwestern was another bad loss to add to a resume with a few already.  Minnesota finished with a win over MSU and back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Penn State at home.

Minnesota's performance in Big Ten play was probably not as bad as its 6-12 record suggests, but its inability to win the games it should or could have won doomed the team.  Even if the Gophers had avoided losses against Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Penn State who were all rated lower on KenPom than Minnesota, they would have been sitting at 11-7 in Big Ten play and likely on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament.  Still, even with the frustration, at some point, a good team has to win those games and Minnesota couldn't pull off enough of those wins to make its Big Ten performance a success.

4. Postseason Play

With Minnesota going just 6-12 in Big Ten play, the Gophers were locked out of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and were considered an NIT bubble team.  For Minnesota to solidify their position in the NIT and potentially get into the Big Dance, they would have to reel off some wins in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.  Unfortunately, due to Minnesota's underwhelming Big Ten record, it would be an uphill battle from the #11 seed and require five straight wins to grab the Big Ten Tournament title.  Here is how things went for Minnesota:

Minnesota 2014-15 Postseason Play:
  • Win (1st Round Big Ten Tourney), Rutgers, 80-68
  • Loss (2nd Round Big Ten Tourney), Ohio State, 79-73

The Gophers were one of the first four teams to ever play on Wednesday in the Big Ten Tournament history - thanks to the conference's additions of Maryland and Rutgers - and got to face the worst team in the Big Ten in Rutgers.  The Scarlet Knights had lost 14 games in a row heading into their matchup with Minnesota and the Gophers were given an 82.7% chance to win before tip-off according to KenPom.

Of course, Minnesota lived up to those high expectations in their game against Rutgers.  During the matchup, Minnesota's win probability never dropped below 65% and for the final 15 minutes of the game, the probability was above 75%.  Even with a final score of 80-68, the game probably wasn't even that close.  Minnesota had the challenge of an extra game due to the new Big Ten Tournament rules, but in all reality, it was essentially a bye.

The 2nd Round was where Minnesota was expected to get their challenge.  There, they would be matched up with Ohio State, who had an 11-7 record in Big Ten play and won their lone regular season matchup with Minnesota in early January following a thrilling overtime game.  Though KenPom gave the Buckeyes a 68.5% chance of victory, it was considered to be a competitive matchup and an early potential upset in the Big Ten Tournament.

However, thanks to big performances from D'Angelo Russell and Shannon Scott, Ohio State was able to stay in control for the majority of the game.  The Gophers kept it interesting for the 1st Half and early in the 2nd Half, but by time the final 10 minutes of the game rolled around, Ohio State was in firm control.  Some key plays from Marc Loving and some free throws and Ohio State wrapped the game up by a final score of 79-73.

Minnesota fans held out hope that the Gophers could sneak back into the NIT and potentially make another great run, but when the field was revealed, Minnesota was not selected.  Minnesota ended its season at 18-15 overall and with a 6-12 record in the Big Ten.

5. Strengths

Minnesota certainly struggled during Big Ten play, but they really were the only team in the bottom of the Big Ten standings to have any semblance of balance between its offense and defense with relatively productive units.  Nebraska and Penn State both had decent defenses, but horrendous offenses and Rutgers was terrible across the board.  The Gophers were not great on either side of the ball, but at least they were decent on both sides.

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.

To start things, King and Walker led an efficient game inside.  King shot 51.5% from 2PT range and Walker similarly came in at 57.4% from inside the arc.  In fact, when you add in Charles Buggs, Eliott Eliason, Gaston Diedhiou, and Bakary Konate, the Gophers had a total of 6 of the Top 50 players in 2PT percentage in the Big Ten last season and all of them came from Minnesota's frontcourt.  This was tied for 2nd highest in the conference.  In total, these six players shot a combined 57.2% from 2PT range.  Of course, as mentioned earlier, Minnesota's frontcourt was efficient, but limited.  None of these six players were in the Top 3 on the team in total field goal attempts and several of these players had limited time on the floor.  It helped the offense, but couldn't carry it alone.

With an efficient, but limited frontcourt, the other part of the offense that Minnesota would rely on was productive perimeter shooting from Andre Hollins, Joey King, and Nate Mason.  Hollins and King were both above the 40% clip on the season and Mason came in at 37.1% on the year.  These three would account for 69.1% of the entire roster's 3PT attempts last season.  Overall, Hollins ended up finishing at #4 and King came in tied at #18 in the Big Ten in 3PT field goals.  The team's season numbers were good enough to put Minnesota at #4 in the Big Ten in 3PT percentage and was arguably the most productive part of the offense all season.

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.

Of course, the issue is how to evaluate these stats fairly since Pitino's system is largely to credit for these numbers.  Well, here are how some of the numbers compare to Pitino's past seasons.

Richard Pitino Defensive Numbers:

pitino defense

Minnesota's defense was far from elite in 2014-15, but it did appear to take forward steps in conforming to PItino's system at least according to some of the traditional "press numbers."  Ultimately, the issue will be whether the defense is good enough to win games regardless of the system, but Minnesota certainly pressured the ball last season and possibly could do it even more looking ahead.

6. Weaknesses

Despite some diversity in its offense and the ability to pressure the ball defensively, there were also plenty of areas that could have used improvement for the Gophers in 2014-15.  Particularly, underwhelming rebounding, weak free throw shooting, and the team's inefficient half court defense.

Minnesota had its strengths in 2014-15, but one spot where the team was particularly underwhelming was on the boards.  One can make an argument that the Gophers are not necessarily built or designed to be a great rebounding team, but their regression on the on the offense and defensive boards was certainly a piece of their slide from last season.  It's one thing to be underwhelming or mediocre on the boards, but another to be downright bad.  Minnesota was a downright bad rebounding team last season.  Just look at their regression from 2013-14.

Minnesota Rebounding Stats:

minn reb hist

In virtually every significant team rebounding category, Minnesota took a step back this season.  They got fewer offensive rebounds, gave up more offensive rebounds, and their top rebounder was less effective than the one in the previous year.  This is something I often say in this review series, but teams can often be "good enough" in a certain area to let the other areas overcome that issue.  For instance, you can be a mediocre 3PT shooting them if you have great big men or a guard who can get inside.  You just can't be so bad at 3PT shooting that anything the big men or guards do is meaningless.  Unfortunately, Minnesota was not decent enough at rebounding the ball to allow its pressuring defense and solid offense to capitalize.

Struggling on the boards is frustrating enough, but when you add in poor free throw shooting, it's going to cause some fans to rip their hair out.  Minnesota was not only not great at getting to the line last season, but they also were ineffective once they got there.  The only player on their roster in the Top 25 in free throw rate (ability to get to the line) in the Big Ten was Maurice Walker and his 72.5% from the line wasn't all that great.  In total, Minnesota ranked #243 as a team in free throw percentage last season and #320 in percentage of team points from free throws.  The Gophers had plenty of points there for the taking, but just couldn't convert on their free throws.

The other thing that really held back Minnesota was a relatively ineffective half court defense.  As mentioned above, the Gophers were very effective at pressuring the ball and creating turnovers, but when the team failed to create turnovers, things weren't all that pretty.  Take a look at how Minnesota's steals and opponent turnovers varied in the team's wins and losses

2014-15 Minnesota Steals & Turnovers:

minn steals turnovers

Those numbers are far from perfect, but it does imply the importance of turnovers for Minnesota's defense and for its ability to win games.  There's a reason why the Gophers were far outside the Top 100 in defensive effective field goal percentage, offense rebounds allowed, defensive 2PT percentage, defensive 3PT percentage, and in block rate, but still finished with the #106 defense on KenPom.  If Minnesota could pressure they ball, they did alright, but their inability to effectively defend in the half court meant a lot of problems.

7. Top Player

Despite the weaknesses for the Gophers in 2014-15, they did have several players that showed a lot of promise for the team and played at a high level.  Not only did Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, and Nate Mason make significant plays in the backcourt, but other players like Carlos Morris and Maurice Walker showed the ability to make plays.  The team may have had its ups and downs, but from an individual level, Minnesota certainly had some real excitement this season.

Let's take a look at the traditional stats.

Minnesota 2014-15 Stat Leaders
  • Minutes - Andre Hollins
  • Field Goal Attempts - Andre Hollins
  • Points - Andre Hollins
  • Rebounds - Maurice Walker
  • Assists - Deandre Mathieu
  • Blocks - Maurice Walker
  • Steals - Deandre Mathieu

Here's how the advanced stats held up.

minn ws

minn per

Of course, advanced numbers may not necessarily be a perfect reflection compared to how a player performs in big games and whether he can push them over the top.  To help assist in this, KenPom does an analysis of an MVP in each game and awards it to the best player on the winning team.  Here is how Minnesota stacked up.

minn kenpom mvps

This is a pretty tight battle between Hollins and Walker.  Both guys had a lot of contributions and had a great deal of separation from anyone else on the roster.  Normally in this series, only the above comparisons have been used, but considering that it's so incredibly close between these two, there seemed to be one two more advanced statistics that could be useful in comparing these two players.  Take a look below.

minnesota usage

Really, almost no matter how you break it down, Andre Hollins and Maurice Walker are right there with one another in terms of contributors.  Walker might have a slight edge due to his diversity of contributions and somewhat lower usage numbers, but there's really no significant difference between the two.  Hollins attracted much of the attention, but the two players carried the flag for the Gophers last season.

8. Sixth Man

The Gophers had their issues and one such area for the team was the bench.  Minnesota had a few guys who saw serious minutes off the bench, but the team finished #232 in bench minutes over the course of the season and considering that the team finished 6-12 overall, likely could have used more production there.

Last season, Minnesota's most started lineup was Andre Hollins, Joey King, Deandre Mathieu, Carlos Morris, and Maurice Walker.  That leaves the biggest bench contributors as Charles Buggs, Elliott Eliason, Bakary Konate, and Nate Mason.  The starters and bench comparison isn't perfect as several players off the bench started games, but this comparison looks at the guys outside the Top 5 in starts.  Here is how they broke down in traditional stats.

Minnesota 2014-15 Bench Leaders
  • Minutes - Nate Mason
  • Field Goal Attempts - Nate Mason
  • Points - Nate Mason
  • Rebounds - Nate Mason
  • Assists - Nate Mason
  • Steals - Nate Mason

Mason also holds up well in the advanced stats comparison.

minn bench ws

minn per bench

There's little room for debate that Nate Mason was the leading bench contributor for Minnesota this season.  He not only led every traditional statistical category for the bench, but he also was significantly higher in win shares than any of the other bench players and had a PER right with the other bench contributors.

Mason arrived on campus last fall and was rated as just a 3-star on the 247Composite.  He came out of Decatur, Georgia and though many perceived him as the top prospects in Minnesota's 2014 class, he was not expected to make major contributions in year one due to the experience of Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu in the backcourt.  Mason not only found his way to the floor, but ended up being one of the better players for the team and looks to have a bright future for the Gophers in the next few years.

9. Top Storylines

The storyline for Minnesota's 2014-15 season was one of frustration and lost potential.  On paper, the Gophers were a decent, but not great unit that failed to capitalize on opportunities against good teams and had too many bad showings against underwhelming teams to put together a good season.

Preseason expectations were mixed for Minnesota, but there was general optimism for a team coming off an NIT title that brought back the vast majority of its contributions from the previous season.  In fact, Minnesota was actually a pretty solid team in 2013-14 despite its inability to get into the NCAA Tournament.

The Gophers lived up to that optimism early on, opening at 11-2 overall with a soft non-conference schedule, but a five game losing streak to open Big Ten play really took almost any hopes Minnesota had to make the NCAA Tournament away before they even had played three home Big Ten games.  Eventually, Minnesota would lose 12 games in Big Ten play where all either came against NCAA Tournament teams, on the road, or by 10 points or less.

Minnesota certainly does not deserve credit for losing to quality teams or by tight margins, but it does show the thin margin the Gophers had this season.  If they had just been able to make some plays here or there or find one more contributor, this team really could have finished with a much better record.

minnpitino pics

10. Final Verdict

Maybe fans and the media bought too much into Minnesota's NIT title in 2013-14 and strong finish to the season.  Still, even if Minnesota was a bit overrated coming into the year, it's tough to rationalize a regression from eight wins during Big Ten play to six wins when Minnesota faced Nebraska and Penn State twice and had additional games against Northwestern and Rutgers.  If Minnesota simply wins those games - they didn't - the team would have had six Big Ten wins alone.

Minnesota returned the majority of its contributions from the previous season and added a few recruits that were expected to at least contribute in some fashion in 2014-15.  A step forward certainly wasn't assured, but the ability to stay near where they finished in 2013-14 seemed reasonable.  Of course, Minnesota slid to the bottom four in the conference and failed to make the postseason.

The Gophers may have been overvalued on postseason wins from 2013-14, but for a team with several solid contributors returning, the 2014-15 season was a regression for head coach Richard Pitino.  The fact that Minnesota finished at #342 in KenPom's luck metric makes the grade less harsh, but this remained a frustrating year for the Minnesota Gophers and will leave fans wondering "what if" for years to come.

Season Grade: C-