In Richard Pitino's first season at Minnesota he led the Gophers to 25 wins and a NIT Title. Heading into 2014-15 the thought process was that Pitino would continue building from his first season and get Minnesota back into the NCAA Tournament after a one year absence. Minnesota hadn't been setting the world on fire, making only one NCAA appearance over the previous four seasons, but the team had reached 20 wins in all but one season since 2007-08.
A relatively experienced Minnesota team played the part over the non-conference slate, going 11-2 and only falling to Louisville and St. Johns. But then Big Ten play kicked off and things fell apart as Minnesota would go on to lose their first five conference games, four of which by five points or less. Minnesota remained competitive throughout the season but struggled in close games, going 5-9 in single digit games against Big Ten programs (including the B1G Tournament loss to Ohio State). When everything was said and done Minnesota finished 18-15 and missed the postseason. Even more problematic was the fact that the Gophers were hit heavy by graduation, losing Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, Maurice Walker and Elliott Eliason.
The combination of roster turnover and last year's disappointing result has led to most people to sour on Minnesota, which is somewhat understandable. However, most people have been projecting for the Gophers to fall even more, with the Sporting News predicting them to finish 13th and Athlon predicting they'll finish 12th. While the general consensus is for Rutgers to finish last once again, a number of people see Minnesota as the second worst program in the conference. Today we're pondering if that's a good prediction or if the media has been too harsh on the Gophers.
First things first, in order for Minnesota to finish as bad as 13th that means they'd have to be worse than everyone in the conference outside of probably Rutgers. The reality is penciling in Minnesota at the bottom is something that can be argued against pretty easily. On one hand you have another similar program, Penn State, that loses a bunch of returning players and will have to hope their incoming players hit the ground running. Past Penn State you have an experienced Northwestern team that has typically struggled to get over the hump, as well as an Illinois program that has been dealing with a mix of injuries, dismissals and a quickly depleting roster. Rounding out the bottom of the conference would also probably be Nebraska, another Big Ten program suffering mass personnel losses and coming off of a disappointing season just like Minnesota.
So even without breaking down what Minnesota might do next season, it's hard to single them out when there are at least five other teams that will either be worse than them or have no considerable advantage over the Gophers. While Minnesota will be young this season, the question is just how big the losses Minnesota suffered were? The reality is part of the reason Minnesota struggled last year was the drop off from guard DeAndre Mathieu. While the loss of Hollins is considerable, both Carlos Morris and Nate Mason showed quite a bit of upside last year and will return. Hollins has became a household name when it comes to Minnesota basketball the last few years, but there shouldn't be much of a drop off in the backcourt. The bigger loss will be Maurice Walker, who started to come into to his own last season, further complicated by the loss of backup Elliott Eliason.
With a considerably thinner frontcourt, that will put a ton of pressure on sophomore center Bakary Konate to step up this season, especially since Reggie Lynch will have to sit out in 2015-16. Charles Buggs and Joey King should be decent additions, especially with Kings ability to shoot from outside, but it's easy to see why Minnesota's frontcourt will be a liability this season. That being said, Minnesota should have a slew of perimeter weapons and Pitino's 2015 recruiting class is full of speedy guards and wings for the backcourt, adding quite a bit of depth. If someone like Kevin Dorsey could hit the ground running, joining Morris and Mason, Minnesota could have one of the more exciting backcourts in the Big Ten.
The reality with preseason predictions is they're heavily based around the prior season, regardless of if a team loses or returns a good majority of their roster. Minnesota lost a ton of winnable games last year and if they could have simply had some better luck, could have made a run to the NCAA Tournament. If that had happen their outlook for 2015-16 would have been a decent amount more positive, even if their close losses last season will mean next to nothing this year.
Minnesota is probably too young and inexperienced inside to make a run for the NCAA Tournament this season, but to dismiss them as one of the worst teams in the conference like a handful of writers have is foolish. Let's not forget that heading into last season most major publications saw Purdue as one of the worst teams in the Big Ten. I'm sure most of you remember how that ended up turning out.