The Golden Gophers missed out on the NCAA Tournament in Richard Pitino's inaugural season at Minnesota, but he still led the team to 25 wins and a NIT Tournament title. Minnesota found a way to take care of business in close games, winning all five NIT games by eight points or less. With 25 wins and a strong core of returning talent, Minnesota was expected to make a run for the NCAA Tournament. A 11-2 start, with both losses coming to impressive opponents (Louisville, St. John's), seemed to make this goal seem like a realistic possibility. Then things went south.
Minnesota ended up losing their first five Big Ten games and started off conference play with a woeful 2-7 record, only beating lowly Rutgers and knocking off Illinois at home. On paper 2-7 was a disappointing record, but Minnesota found numerous ways to drop winnable games, losing to Purdue, Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan by a combined 13 points (and with three of those games happening on the road). While the Gophers dropped 15 games all together, 11 of these were single digit losses, with three of the double digit defeats coming to the two top teams in the conference (Wisconsin, Maryland).
Taking that into consideration, while Minnesota seemingly regressed last season, the reality is the Gophers simply struggled to take care of business in close games. Now that Minnesota has to replace their two top scorers in Andre Hollins and Maurice Walker, Pitino will be calling on some fresh faces as he'll have to replace several additional key contributors (DeAndre Mathieu and Elliott Eliason) as well.
That leads us to Minnesota's trip to Spain, something that Pitino and company hope can kick the 2015-16 season off in a positive manner and help Minnesota bounce back to the NCAA Tournament after a two year absence. Former Gopher head coach Clem Haskins took his team to Australia and New Zealand in 1989 and then got Minnesota to the Elite Eight the next season. Now Pitino will hope to replicate the success Haskins had as he takes Minnesota overseas to Spain, their first foreign trip since Tubby Smith took the team to British Columbia back in 2010.
Regardless of the end result, there is a reason programs keep scheduling these trips. Based on the current NCAA rules, schools can take a foreign trip once every four years and, when taking said trip, can have an additional 10 practices and several exhibition games that they wouldn't have access to otherwise. Minnesota is one of several Big Ten programs making a foreign trip this summer, with Illinois, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern also doing the same. Besides an additional set of practices, these also create a more realistic game environment that can allow coaches to try out new players, new rotations and new strategies that they might not be able to squeeze into the one or two exhibition games they'll have just prior to the beginning of the season.
Even more beneficial is the fact that basketball programs can take incoming players on these trips as long as they're enrolled in classes, something that is in Minnesota's favor as they have seven newcomers under scholarship that will get additional playing time because of this Spain trip. Besides the additional practices, Pitino believes the trip is even more beneficial from a bonding aspect.
"Everybody always says we need to do these foreign tours. I did it once at Louisville. The most you get out of it is the practice and then when you go to Spain it’s the team bonding, that is what’s really big," mentioned Pitino.
Minnesota departed Minneapolis this past Monday, set to fly to Paris before heading over to Barcelona. Besides touring the country and having several practices, Minnesota will play four games starting this Thursday, including playing several Spain all-star teams.
Pitino's past experience with foreign trips has been positive, with the trips being a nice way to bond as a team and work on getting things pieced together as the season approaches. Minnesota has had success with these trips in the past and if Minnesota can find a way to pick up some close wins next season, they have a young and promising roster that could potentially start to make some waves in 2016.