Minnesota has tasted some recent success. From watching them all year, it's deserved. Effort has never been a question, even during a really dark stretch of losing.
The Maryland upset provided a huge emotional lift (fans storming the court and Joey King's emotional salvo) and beating Rutgers, which was very much a trap game, meant they could handle a little success. Big losses to Illinois and Wisconsin was perhaps largely due to the recent suspensions of Kevin Dorsey, Dupree McBrayer and Nate Mason. (To be sure that will have an impact on their development.)
Into the season, Pitino had some large roster challenges, and the suspensions notwithstanding, he has done a pretty good job massaging a competitive roster.
Into the season, Minnesota's lack of size and limited depth along the frontline was a concern. They weathered disadvantages inside early in the season, but the Big Ten schedule was supposed to gravely expose their weaknesses.
Minnesota's only getting outrebounded by an average of nearly four per game this year (38.3 to 34.6). Admittedly, the gap in rebounding is larger in conference play, just by one rebound though. Bakary Konate has been a solid anchor near the basket defensively, and is playing about 20 minutes a night, but Gaston Diedhiou has hardly played, and he and Konater were the upside for the position.
Really what's helped them is Richard Pitino has stumbled upon a great, smallish lineup. This lineup has sustained on the glass largely due to Jordan Murphy's ascent. He's been a revelation the entire year, but more recently, he's playing like a future star (double-doubles against Maryland and Rutgers).
Murphy's athletic ability and rebounding relieves the pressure to play Konate and another big, or move Joey King inside, which isn't necessarily a natural fit. Instead, Pitino can play Konate, Murphy and King together, or just Murphy, King and three guards. (Charles Buggs is more of a perimeter guy, but can mix it up on the glass too.) Either way, Pitino has options, and it has bailed them out while they've been thin on the frontline.
Defensive Effort, Rotations
Particularly against South Dakota and South Dakota State, Minnesota's defensive rotations were pathetic. They either weren't closing out on shooters, or had two guys run to a shooter leaving someone else open.
But, the defensive problems were fixable; Pitino did fix them. Effort and communication really were the most glaring issues. Now, Minnesota's defending with much more intensity, and they're sharp in closing out on shooters.
The numbers don't necessarily scream great defensive team, but the eye test shows what's evident; they're much tighter defensively.
Minnesota's young talent has grown a lot throughout the season. The Gophers have played a bunch of close games, and recently now they've started winning them. At certain critical moments, Pitino will have three freshman and a sophomore on the floor.
Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Kevin Dorsey have all continued to improve. Their improvement hasn't been without bumps, but each of those guys can get much better. (Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, Mason, McBrayer and Dorsey have been suspended for the remainder of this season.)
Over the next year or two, it'll be intriguing to see whether the young talent will continue to ascend. Sometimes this much losing actually hurts development, but judging by the consistent effort, this group will rise above any negativity.
Each guy seems to have taken at least a tiny leap. Murphy and Mason perhaps have taken a little bigger leap than the rest. But, the fact that they have is a great sign for the future.
Plus, the defensive effort has been better, and much improved from earlier in the year when they weren't even closing out on shooters, and while they're not dominating teams on the glass, it's not killing them either.
We'll have a larger recap and look forward when the season concludes, but for now Pitino, although the record doesn't really show, has done a good job managing his roster.