Minnesota kicked off the Big Ten’s participation in the NCAA Tournament. They tipped off just before Northwestern-Vanderbilt, and got the conference off to a mixed start.
Ultimately, Minnesota dropped the game and by the seeds this was an upset. That being said, Middle Tennessee State was actually a minus-1.5 favorite right before tip. The Blue Raiders have experience and it showed in the second half when Minnesota went on a run and closed to within four. Middle Tennessee never panicked, and re-extended the lead.
So, the Gophers 2016-’17 season is over. Let’s go over three takeaways from Minnesota’s loss to Middle Tennessee State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Minnesota could’ve used more depth
The top-level talent on Minnesota is really good; good enough that the Gophers should be contenders in the Big Ten next year. However, Richard Pitino could’ve used a little more depth.
For starters, Jordan Murphy, Eric Curry and Reggie Lynch all had four fouls and either had to sit stretches or play conservatively. Pitino and his players managed the situation well enough, but having another reliable front court rotation player would’ve been useful today.
Wing depth is also needed. Injuries have impacted this group. Unfortunately, Akeem Springs was injured in the Big Ten Tournament and Davonte Fitzgerald didn’t play all year. It really forced Amir Coffey, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer into heavy minutes. Coffey played the entire game, while Mason and McBrayer logged 38 and 37 minutes respectively.
Altogether, Pitino got just 30 minutes and 11 points from his bench against Middle Tennessee. Curry accounted for 21 of the minutes and all of the points. The depth is more troublesome as it relates to the frontcourt, but even having a bit more wing options and scoring is helpful in March.
Nate Mason’s poor day proves detrimental
Mason was Minnesota’s leading scorer, averaging 15.5 points a game. But on Thursday he could never really get it going against the Blue Raiders. Mason finished with five points on 2-for-10 shooting, including 1-for-7 from three.
Mason wasn’t alone in having difficulty, but he’s the tone setter and has the ball in his hands most often. McBrayer and Coffey scored in double figures, but struggled a bit as well with Middle Tennessee’s zone.
The Gopher program has great momentum
Minnesota-nation should be generally happy. Sure it’s disappointing to lose as a five seed, but Middle Tennessee State is good and Butler better be aware.
The Gophers had a tremendous turnaround from their disastrous 2015-’16 season. They had a 16-win improvement overall and picked up nine more wins in the Big Ten.
More importantly, nearly everyone is back next year. Akeem Springs, of course, is not, but all the starters ought to return, unless Coffey decides to test the NBA waters. But, Mason, McBrayer, Jordan Murphy, Curry and Lynch are locked in key pieces next year.
If those six improve and perhaps an incoming freshman or Fitzgerald or Michael Hurt can help solve the depth problem, the Gophers will be back. Undoubtedly, the way Pitino’s squad battled in this year’s NCAA Tournament should give them valuable experience (and motivation) to apply towards next year.
Minnesota basketball has seemed to correct their off-court issues and the on court product improved greatly this season.
Now it’s about handling success. Does everyone stay motivated, maintain the right course away from the game and work in the off season to come back even stronger? My guess is that they’re not satisfied with just making the tournament and this team comes back stronger next year.