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Three Key Storylines For the Minnesota Golden Gophers

Head coach Richard Pitino is trying to turn around a program that’s been backsliding throughout his tenure.

Big Ten Basketball Tournament - First Round Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It’s been a rough calendar year for coach Richard Pitino and the Golden Gophers. They went 8-23 overall in the 2015-2016 season. They went 2-16 in the Big Ten, good for 13th place in the conference. They finished 223rd in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings. They were bounced out of the Big Ten tournament in a 30 point loss to Illinois and did not qualify for any postseason tournaments. Basically any potential goal Pitino and the Gophers had heading into the season was drastically missed.

This team, in all likelihood, will not be a contender this season, but what they will need is improvement. The program has been going backward since Pitino’s first season and newly hired athletic director Mark Coyle will probably have no qualms about finding his own head coach if the program continues to head in the wrong direction. Either way, there are still some key storylines to follow throughout the season. Let’s take a look.

Getting the House in Order

On top of all the on court failures, Minnesota basketball was all over the news with their numerous off the court issues. Leading scorer Nate Mason and freshmen Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer were all suspended for the last two games of the season after Dorsey posted videos to twitter of the Minnesota players engaging in a sexual act. Dorsey ended up transferring out of the school, while Mason and McBrayer will return to the team.

And it wasn’t just the players involved in off the court controversies that were making headlines for Minnesota. In the spring, an internal audit acquired by the Star Tribune, revealed that Pitino had gone over the allocated budget for private jet travel by almost $200,000. The university allots $150,000 for that kind of travel over his first three seasons and Pitino spent $325,000. There were also several other things mentioned in the audit that took issue with costs associate with the coach, not making things any better for the Gophers.

These kind of problems off the court don’t fly for national powerhouses, let alone when you only win eight games all year. Before the Gophers can be a consistently successful team, they need to be a program defined by discipline, professionalism, and proper conduct. This must come from the top down starting with the head coach and his ability to recruit quality guys and lay down the law. If the program continues to deal with issues away from the court, it’ll make it even easier for the athletic department to move on from Pitino in the future.

Bad Team with Young Talent

Winning eight games the year before does not provide much optimism for the following season, but the Golden Gophers have a lot of young, promising talent on the roster. Mason is a returning sophomore and can fill a leadership role as the starting point guard, while forward Jordan Murphy also comes back for his second year after averaging 11.6 points per game and 8 rebounds per game.

The Gophers have more depth this season as Minnesota played a lot of freshman last season, including guards McBrayer, Stephon Sharp, and Ahmad Gilbert. Minnesota also brings in the 31st ranked recruiting class in the nation and 5th best in the Big Ten (per 247sports), with the crown jewel of the class being 6’7” wing Amir Coffey, ranked in the top 50 by ESPN and 247sports. Coffey is a dynamic scorer and versatile playmaker that can help revitalize an offense that was ranked 278th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency. While he’s not exactly a young guy, the Gophers also bring in Akeem Springs, a transfer from Milwaukee who averaged 13.2 ppg and 5.3 rpg.

So while expectations are low heading into the season, the reality is the team still has some talent at hand.

Taking a Step Forward

Even with a promising young core it will amount to nothing if they continues to move backward. Pitino’s first season with the program ended with the team going 25-13 and winning the NIT. The team’s record has gotten progressively worse over the following two seasons when they went 18-15 and then had that 8 win campaign last season.

This backward momentum builds up quickly and all the bad just snowballs. For the sake of the development of the program (and Pitino’s job security), the Gophers need a jumpstart and this young cast of players could be the catalyst for this forward momentum. At the very least, it’ll be hard to be worse on the court this season in comparison to 2015-16.

Both Coyle and Pitino should not be expecting to contend for a Big Ten title or a NCAA Tournament appearance this year. They should, however, be working to make sure their young players develop, the team keeps its nose clean, and the program makes incremental progress in a positive direction.