Over the last few days, I’ve had opportunities to talk with several Gopher basketball fans. Many have echoed a similar sentiment: Typical, the Gophers get into the NCAA Tournament, finally, but underachieve and lose to a lower seed.
Part of the issue, honestly, is the context. Gopher fans see the Badgers beat one seeded Villanova, reach their fourth straight Sweet Sixteen and overachieve for a second consecutive tournament.
Minnesota fans shouldn’t look at it that way though. It’s hard not to, so I feel the need to step in and try to reason with those who are frustrated.
Let’s unpack the question: Should the Gophers have done more in the NCAA Tournament? (Would it have been nice to? Yes. But, in short, the answer is no.)
-Consider the match up.
Many griped about the selection committee, and the seeding was certainly odd across the board. But, beating good teams is eventually a requirement of advancing.
With that said, Minnesota drew a particularly difficult opening round matchup. So, the NCAA gave the Gophers a higher seed, but it didn’t do them any favors.
Middle Tennessee State, although defeated in the second round, had experience and depth, two attributes the Gophers lacked. Consider some numbers: Their roster was comprised of nine seniors and juniors. The Blue Raiders had won 30 games (20 of 21 heading into the tournament) and finished 17-1 in the C-USA standings.
In fact, Middle Tennessee State wasn’t just a tough matchup; they were favored to win. Early on game day, the Blue Raiders were 1.5 point favorites. It wasn’t a huge number, but losing in the first round wasn’t a devastating upset. It wasn’t an upset at all, really.
-Injuries and youth matter.
Akeem Springs, who provided excellent wing depth, tore his Achilles in the Big Ten Tournament. Already thin, Richard Pitino moved from a seven to six-man rotation, with no real guard or true wing coming off the bench. That meant Amir Coffey, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer had to play nearly all game.
In addition to Springs, Davonte Fitzgerald was injured before the season, and Kevin Dorsey transferred in the off season. A potential seven, eight, or nine man rotation shrunk to just six.
Furthermore, none of the guys on the roster had ever been to the NCAA Tournament. The stage was bigger; the practice cadence was different, and the hoopla surrounding the game was amplified. The program now has the experience on which to build.
-Focus on the good things.
Minnesota finished fourth in the Big Ten regular season! The Gophers made the NCAA Tournament! Eight weeks ago, it didn’t look like either would be possible.
Minnesota opened this Big Ten season at 3-6, but went 8-1 to finish the season. A year ago, the team only had two Big Ten wins.
The program is young and has a great core. Developing the talent on the roster will be the key. Look no further than McBrayer for an example of where development could take the Gophers in the years to come.
McBrayer shot 32 percent overall and 25 percent from three as a freshman; now as a sophomore, he jumped to 44 percent overall and 41 percent from three. That’s while playing five more minutes a game, and taking nearly twice as many shots.
Also, contrary to the eye test (or maybe perception), Minnesota was actually one of the league’s best defensive units. According to KenPom, the Gophers had the 21st defensive efficiency rating in the country. Offense comes and goes, but defense can be the consistency night-to-night.
Should the Gophers have done more in the NCAA Tournament? The answer is no. Sure, it would’ve been nice for Minnesota to win the opening round game, but losing isn’t a disaster. Neither is it business as usual, nor typical Gopher basketball.
On the contrary, the program has stabilized and the talent is apparent. If the program remains stable and the talent continues to improve, with added depth, we may not need to entertain this question next year.