Any other season, Minnesota would have absolutely been the surprise team in the Big Ten. Unfortunately for them, Northwestern and perhaps to a lesser extent, Illinois, also qualified as surprising teams in the conference.
Minnesota started off the season strong, went on a losing streak, and ended it on a winning streak that was long enough to get them into the Big Dance for the first time since Richard Pitino took over the program in 2013.
Here’s a closer look at how their season went.
Coming off of an 8-23 season, not much was thought of the Golden Gophers in the preseason. While they did add a consensus top-100 prospect in Amir Coffey to their roster, their 2015-16 lineup, obviously, did not inspire much confidence in college basketball pundits.
They finished as KenPom’s 192nd ranked team, and no one was really anticipating them to make the type of jump they made this past season. Clearly, they were a vastly underrated team, but no one really had any way of knowing that, right?
Minnesota went 12-1 in their non-conference slate. Their one and only loss came to a surprise team from another conference: the Florida State Seminoles. In those games, Big Ten fans saw several Gopher emerge as players to watch, and it became apparent that Minnesota had taken a major step forward from the year before.
This was probably a make-or-break season for Pitino, and his players did their part in making sure he’d make it.
Coffey was the team’s leading scorer in three non-conference games, while Reggie Lynch, Dupree McBrayer, Akeem Springs and Jordan Murphy had big performances in those first 13 games, too. They formed a formidable starting lineup, and the fact that they were all veterans went a long way towards easing a talented but young Amir Coffey into the rotation.
They went into the regular season with plenty of momentum, and a matchup with a banged up Michigan State team at home to look forward to.
Big Ten Play:
The Spartans beat them 75-74 in overtime.
The Gophers led by 13 at the half, and the Spartans came back to win it in OT. MSU had been recently upset by Northeastern, which made the result of the Gopher-Sparty matchup super confusing to every Big Ten fan.
The Gophers were not going to dwell on it for too long, though. They ripped off three straight wins, including road victories against Purdue and Northwestern. They were 3-1 in conference play, and only had losses against a highly-rated FSU squad, and an overtime loss against Michigan State. They were flying high, and optimism around the program was as the highest it had been since they won the NIT in Pitino’s first season at the helm.
Then, they came back down to earth a little bit.
They lost five straight games, sending their 3-1 record to 3-6. The worst part for Gopher fans was that one of their three Big Ten wins was against Purdue, who by that point, was already a conference championship favorite. Their early success was legitimized by that win, but it was beginning to look more and more like a fluke.
They snapped out of that losing streak with a 68-59 win at Illinois. They wouldn’t lose another game for a month. They went on an eight game winning streak, which included wins against Maryland, Michigan and Iowa. People began to believe in them again, and they looked like the team they were early on in the year.
Their regular season ended with a 66-49 loss to Wisconsin, but the postseason outlook for the Gophers still looked positive.
Big Ten Tournament:
There isn’t a heck of a lot to say here.
Minnesota avenged their two losses to the Spartans by beating them in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, effectively sending MSU to the NIT. The Gophers, however, had the unfortunate task of facing the suddenly red-hot Michigan Wolverines in the semi finals.
Michigan was looking to avenge their late February overtime loss to Minnesota, and at times, felt like they had more resistance from #BigTenRefs than they did from the Gophers. Derrick Walton Jr. continued his, dare I say, Trey Burke-ian play, and the Wolverines rolled their way to a win.
The Golden Gophers were sent home after the loss, with Selection Sunday a mere 48 hours away. There likely won’t be many nerves in Minneapolis, though. They’ll make the tourney.
I touched on this a bit further up, but the key players were Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy, Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Akeem Springs and Reggie Lynch.
Nate Mason was voted as a first team all-Big ten performer. Jordan Murphy was named to the third team, and Amir Coffey was on the freshmen all-Big Ten team. Reggie Lynch was named to the all-defensive team, and was also given the conference’s DPOY award.
Richard Pitino was named Big Ten coach of the year.
The Gophers were gifted the fifth seed in the South regional. They’ll play 12th seed Middle Tennessee State from Conference-USA. Another highly-seeded Big Ten team played MTSU last year in the first round of the tourney, and, well, let’s not get into that.
(2nd seed Michigan State lost to 15th seed MTSU last yeah heheheheheheheh).
At the very least, they should win that game. It would be their first NCAA Tournament win since they beat UCLA in 2013, and that would be a great step forward for a program likely to keep most–if not all–of its important contributors next season.