Slowly but surely I'm making my way up the standings--this week we've got the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who, like Northwestern, carried a first-year head coach this past season. Richard Pitino and Co. finished seventh in the Big Ten, with the same conference record they had in Tubby Smith's final season at the league's other U of M.
So, what happened this season?
The Gophers started off well enough, going 11-2 in non-conference play with the lone blemishes coming in consecutive games against Syracuse and Arkansas in Maui. UM gave the Orangemen a game, carrying a mere three-point deficit into the second half, but 12 second-half points from Syracuse's C.J. Fair help keep the Gophers at bay.
Otherwise, the two marquee wins of the non-conference slate against RPI No. 73 Richmond on Nov. 16 and No. 52 Florida State on Dec. 3.
As is to be expected, the Gophers were a tough out at home once Big Ten play began--only Michigan, Illinois and Northwestern (of course) pulled out wins at The Barn this past season. As Michigan fans will remember, that game on Jan. 2 easily could have gone the other way; if all else remained the same, would a 9-9 Minnesota squad with an extra win against the Wolverines on its resume been tournament-bound? In college basketball, sometimes its the slimmest of margins that does a team in, but, of course, it's easy to ponder this sort of thing with the benefit of hindsight.
Minnesota went on to win four of its next six, with one of the losses being a difficult overtime affair in East Lansing, the other a drubbing in Iowa City, back when Iowa appeared to be as formidable of a team as they come.
Remember, this is Big Ten basketball--naturally, Minnesota followed that beating three days later with a victory over the admittedly struggling Badgers back at The Barn, 81-68. With that feather in their cap, you figured things might stabilize a bit, but they did not.
Even more than the Michigan loss, the following three-game stretch likely did the Gophers in: an 82-78 loss at Nebraska, a 55-54 loss against Northwestern at home and a 77-74 triple overtime defeat in West Lafayette. With that, they fell to 4-6 in the league.
Unfortunately for Pitino et al, they went .500 the rest of the way, landing them at 8-10 and on the tournament bubble, which popped for good when the Badgers delivered them a 26-point beating at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
The maroon and gold alternated between inspired and listless play down the stretch, following a nice win at Northwestern (as strange as that is to type) with double-digit losses against Illinois and Ohio State. They then followed a thrilling 95-89 win against Iowa with a painful loss at Michigan, in which they trailed by two with under four minutes to play.
Back-to-back wins against Penn State seemed to provide the Gophers with a gust of confidence at their backs...that is, until they ran into the aforementioned Wisconsin buzzsaw.
On the bright side, the Gophers won five straight games to close their season, culminating with an NIT title upon defeating Florida State (again), this time in overtime, then SMU in the championship game at Madison Square Garden, 65-63.
Is it better to have danced for a brief time than to have gone all the way in the NIT? You'll have to ask your dearest maroon and gold-clad friend, but my guess is yeah, probably.
Nonetheless, they could have just as easily flopped, and, to their credit, they didn't. While winning their third NIT title might not be something Gophers fans tell their kids about down the road, the needle moved in the positive direction as Pitino heads into his second year in Minneapolis.
- A quick scan of Minnesota's statsheet page reveals something that is reflective of their conference record: they weren't superb at anything, yet weren't dreadful at anything either. Quiet a few 5th-8th rankings there.
- The Gophs were a middling offensive rebounding team (6th in ORB%) and, actually, pretty bad on the defensive glass despite having 7-footer Elliot Eliason (10th in DRB%).
- Although it often seemed like it varied widely from game to game, on the season the Gophers finished 5th in the B1G in three-point percentage.
- Despite the sometimes helter skelter nature of the Minnesota offensive attack, they finished 4th in assist percentage--not bad at all.
- Not surprisingly given Pitino's defensive philosophy, Minnesota was also 4th in steal percentage. They disheth and taketh, those Gophs.
- They also gaveth...to the other team. They finished behind only Indiana in turnover percentage at 19.5 percent. If they weren't scoring with their defense, the odds were good they were turning it over or making/missing a triple. This was a team that liked to live dangerously, recklessly, wild and free:
On the bright side, Andre Hollins is back, Minnesota's leading scorer (13.6 ppg) and a solid three-point shooter (35 percent), albeit he was just 38 percent overall from the field.
Unfortunately, longtime central piece Austin Hollins is gone. As a senior, his field goal percentage jumped up 4 percent from the 2012-13 season to 44.5 percent. He also pitched in 5.0 board per game, up from 3.2 rpg the season before. No, he wasn't a star or an All Big Ten guy, but he did a lot of things for the Gophers, and he hit some big shots along the way.
As for other departures, three-point gunner Malik Smith (174 3PA in just 19.0 minutes per game!) and the infrequently deployed Maverick Ahanmisi. Also, sadly, Oto Osenieks' career ended due to injury (he had one year of eligibility remaining).
Eliason is also back to patrol the paint, giving the Gophers a top notch defensive presence. No, he's by no means a polished scorer, but his defense is so good that you can forgive that from the 7-footer. In fact, I would be willing to guess I was the only one to vote for him as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten blogger voting a few months back--I don't know why, I'm just a fan. Maybe he's not Jeff Withey, but he's still pretty, pretty good.
Another guy I really enjoyed who returns is the diminutive guard, DeAndre Mathieu. In his first season in maroon and gold after transferring from Central Arizona College (and Morehead State before that), Mathieu put up 12.0 ppg and a team-high 4.2 assists per game. At 5 feet, nine inches tall, size is, well, a concern, but the guy has some serious quicks--in Pitino's defensive system, allowing the opponent an opportunity to isolate him in the halfcourt is a failed possession, whether it results in a bucket or not. Mathieu did a nice job in that role as a creator of havoc (VCU doesn't have that trademarked yet, do they?), finishing 14th in the B1G with a 2.72 steal percentage during league play. They'll need even more of that in 2014-15.
As for the newbies, UM picked up a quartet of 3-stars, plus power forward Gaston Diedhiou, of the Canarias Basketball Academy in the Canary Islands. Here's a nice article from Marcus R. Fuller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Diedhiou and the emphasis on international players--FWIW, Bakary Konate, the big man mentioned in the story, also committed to Minnesota.
Pitino picked up three guys 6'8'' or taller in this class, plus 6-foot-4 SG Carlos Morris. PF Josh Martin, of Bothell, Wash., from what I can tell, seems to be the best recruit of the class--ignoring star rankings, Martin pulled in offers from UCLA, Pitt and Gonzaga, among others.
Guys like Konate and Diedhiou will probably need some time to develop, but one thing's for sure: the Gophers will have some big time size all over the floor mixed in with the under-6-foot electron havoc-creators.
Returning Andre Hollins and Mathieu will give the Gophers a solid 1-2 punch in the back court, and Eliason down low should continue to incrementally improve his offense while still serving as that defensive anchor in the paint.
Overall, however, the Gophers need to be more consistent, and having, you know, better talent, should help in that respect. Martin was a nice get for Minnesota, but those bigs will probably need a little seasoning before they're ready to be serious contributors.
Lots of teams can argue that they were far better than their record; meanwhile, others perhaps got a little lucky along the way and notched a record exceeding their true quality. As far as I can tell, Minnesota finished just about in the neighborhood of what they really were: a game below .500 in a tough league, doing pretty well at home while struggling on the road.
Can they break the .500 barrier this year? As I've mentioned in the other previews, the Big Ten as a whole likely won't be as strong from top to bottom as it has been the past couple of years. Right now, Wisconsin is the early favorite at the top, then you've got Michigan in that second tier with who knows who else--after that, there are a lot of teams with a lot of question marks, teams looking to bounce back or surge forward.
Minnesota is a solid place to play college basketball, and I think Pitino will make it work. The very nature of college basketball makes widely divergent home-road efficiencies possible, but the story of 2014-15 will be stability and consistency. Additionally, it'll be year No. 2 under Pitino's system--what strides will they make?
It's way too early to make any sort of definitive predictions, but it's a good bet the Gophers at least match that 8-10 league record. However, getting that ninth or 10th win could be the difference between the Big Dance and the NIT once again.