Minnesota's season ended on Wednesday night, falling to Illinois 85-52. Several weeks earlier the Gophers and Fighting Illini played a hotly contested overtime game, but Minnesota's far from the team they were even a few weeks ago. The dismissal of Carlos Morris and suspensions of Dupree McBrayer, Nate Mason and Kevin Dorsey guaranteed a sour end to a challenging season.
A Look Back at the Schedule
Minnesota finished the non-conference schedule at 6-6 (8-23 overall, 2-16 in the Big Ten). Their early set of games featured a nice win (Clemson) and a few disappointing losses (South Dakota, Milwaukee, Oklahoma State). Early in the season, Minnesota struggled to generate offense and their defensive effort, at times non-existent, and a bit disorganized; the team needed to learn to play together.
Moving into the Big Ten schedule, nobody held any unreasonable expectations. I actually thought Minnesota might win five Big Ten games this year; they won two. The Gophers were competitive, though. Richard Pitino was able to shore up some of the defensive rotations, and the team was playing hard despite the losing.
Unlike Rutgers, Minnesota really didn't get blown out much (until the end of the season). The Gophers lost at Michigan by five, at Iowa by four, vs. Purdue by four and at Indiana by six. All those close losses led to a stretch which saw Minnesota upset Maryland and beat Rutgers (by a lot).
Then, the suspensions hit, and Minnesota started losing by double-digits. The roster, slim to begin with, just couldn't manage through more losses. Bless them, but Pitino was playing people like Stephon Sharp (a freshman walk-on) more than 35 minutes a night. Minnesota lost its last four games by an average of 20 points (including a 23-point loss to Rutgers then winless in the Big Ten, and a 33-point loss to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament).
The Young Talent
Setting aside the ugliness of the last two weeks of the season, Minnesota had a few bright lights. Jordan Murphy, named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team, is the jewel of the class. He's a star, and a very solid building block. Murphy averaged 11 points and eight rebounds this year. His athletic ability is not debatable; it's top flight. Once he learns to defend without fouling and gets a more reliable outside jumper, he'll demonstrate his very high ceiling.
Nate Mason, among those suspended at the end of the year, showed leadership qualities that he ought to carry into next season. As a sophomore, he became a more reliable crunch time scorer, and a vocal leader. McBrayer and Dorsey will need to shoot better, but both young freshman flashed potential.
Even Bakary Konate, who didn't light the world on fire with his offensive, was a stable presence in the paint. He pulled five rebounds a night, and played 21 minutes per.
All told, it seems like Pitino did a good job this year. The team always played hard, and never quit even in the midst of a 14-game losing streak. The Gophers improved too. Defensively, they were much stingier and offensively, although the team didn't shoot particularly well, found ways to get buckets.
Some credit goes to Pitino and his staff for that. Based solely on record, though, Minnesota did take a step back, but the roster's depth and experience was slim. Next season, Pitino will bring in four guys who should contribute immediately, in addition to the strides made by the young roster.
Assessing a coach's job performance is always easy fodder. Obviously, Pitino can't afford many more seasons like this one, at some point the Gophers need to win more games than they lose. However, based on the circumstances, Pitino did well to manage the roster's limitations.
Minnesota's season, while disappointing, isn't without its bright spots. Unfortunately, I feel bad for a seniors like Joey King, who played inspired basketball this season, but won't get another opportunity in a Gopher uniform. He won't be around when/if Minnesota turns it around.
Either way, one would have to think there's no way to go but up from here. And, with the influx of talent, next year's Gophers ought to be different.