By Joe Perovich/Murphy News Service
The Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball team: a tight clique off the court that has yet to click on it.
Describing them as a tournament team leading up to the season made sense, but their actions through late February have a final, resounding say on the matter.
Their most accurate identifier? Being consistently inconsistent.
Minnesota tips off at the Kohl Center Saturday morning at 11 against the fifth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers on ESPN. A tightly-contested loss would be more of the same, not a morale booster — again, actions have the resounding say.
Four games remain in the Gophers conference season, but Wednesday’s 72-66 home loss to conference-fodder Northwestern can be isolated as a microcosm of their disappointing up-and-down year.
The Gophers played timidly at Penn State a few weeks ago, and then saw bottom-feeding Northwestern’s gunners run them out of their own gym in the most recent game.
The team that lost at Penn State went into Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena – where no Gophers team had won since 2011 – and won.
It should have been the turning point of the season – where Andre Hollins, DeAndre Mathieu, Joey King and others realize it’s never been a talent issue, but instead the inability to harness their talent on a consistent and repetitive basis.
In light of Wednesday’s loss, the Gophers have problems to fix with their own, collective mindset before anything meaningful can be fixed on the court.
Anything that still can be fixed this season, however, can’t save their season – which has almost run its course. Minnesota is on the fast track toward defending their NIT title – the only title you hope not to have to defend.
It’s an apathetic, uninspired and fitting end to one of the strangest seasons in the program’s recent history.
Minnesota’s next meaningful game is the season opener of Head Coach Richard Pitino’s third season. The most relevant conversations surrounding Gophers basketball at the current moment all have to do with where things are headed.
Freshman point guard Nate Mason and the 2015 recruiting class are encouraging assurances that Pitino and the rest of the Gophers coaching staff are not in over their heads.
Pitino inherited a program that was coming off of a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament at the time of his hiring, .
The Gophers did not make it back to the NCAA dance in 2014, and a spirited title run in the NIT tournament was nonetheless a widely accepted downgrade with three starters from the 2013 tournament team – Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Joe Coleman – no longer with the team.
Pitino was hired too late to make up the number of hours other coaches around the country had already put into recruiting Minnesota’s hot commodities in the class of 2014 – Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn, and even Reid Travis.
Former head coach Tubby Smith possessed the geographical advantage and spent countless hours trying to pull off any of the three while on the job, but Minnesota never once was deemed a favorite at any point for any of those three.
At most the Gophers were on an equal playing field with other schools to land De La Salle’s Travis, so it’s unrealistic to think Pitino could close down the state borders so soon when he had no prior ties here.
Pitino was present for the entire 2015 recruiting search however, and his four-star recruits are packaged in quantity – something coaches of the past weren’t able to pull off.
Looking toward the future, here are the four prep players Minnesota has received commitments from for 2015 (rankings according to ESPN):
Minnesota Gophers 2015 Recruiting Class (ranked No. 35 overall in the country)
|Position||Pos. Ranking (Nat’l)||Name (Highlights linked)||Stars||Height||Weight||Location||Other Offers|
|PG||#25||Jarvis Johnson||4*||6’1”||185||MN (De La Salle H.S.)||Wisconsin, Mich. St., UCLA|
|C||#34||Jonathan Nwankwo||4*||6’10”||240||NY||Tennessee, Seton Hall|
|SG||(N/A)||Dupree McBrayer||3*||6’3”||180||NY||Auburn, St. John’s|
|2016 commitments: 4* SF Michael Hurt of Rochester. He’s a 6-foot-7-inch jump shooter who can corral rebounds and man up on defense.|
Minnesota Gophers 2015-16 Expected Roster (sorted by year)
|PG||Nate Mason||So.||6’1”||185||9.5 PPG, 2.6 APG, 1.9 SPG,FG%: .407, 3PT%: .424, FT%: .634|
|PG||Darin Haugh||5’10”||170||N/A (Bethany College Transfer)|
|SG||Mike Lukashewich||So.||6’3”||180||Walk-on, 8 MP on season|
|SF/SG||Carlos Morris||Sr.||6’5”||180||11 PPG, 2.3 APG, 2 SPG, 2 TPG,FG%: .447, 3P%: .329, FT%: .711|
|F||Charles Buggs||Jr.||6’9”||210||3.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.5 APG, FG%:.457, 3P%: .359, FT%: .500|
|PF||Joey King||Sr.||6’9”||225||28.5 MPG, 9 PPG, 3 RPG, 1.5 APG, FG%: .440, 3P%: .369, FT%, .771|
|PF||Gaston Diedhiou||So.||6’9”||230||Averaged 3.3 MPG in last eight games|
|C||Bakary Konate||So.||6’11”||230||1.9 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.4 BPG,FG%: .476, FT%: .531|
- Who will be Minnesota’s starting center next season?
Sophomore Bakary Konate has played well on defense in stretches this season (he was terrific in the first half when Minnesota played host to Purdue a few weeks ago), but his minutes have predictably waned as Elliott Eliason’s has wrestled back several of the minutes he had previously lost early on in the season.
Eliason and Mo Walker graduate, and the team lacks a towering big man to place next to Joey King for the immediate future. Jonathan Nwankwo will be a quality starter – one day. Konate’s a long way in his own development from becoming a full-time starter.
A King and Konate pairing lacks someone who can be given the ball on the block, and trying to go small with Buggs and King provides little resistance against teams with offensively skilled big men.
- Free-throw deficiencies
Here’s how those returning next year in the same or elevated role have performed at the free throw line this season:
King’s been the best free throw shooter by percentage this season. The next three best free throw shooters on the team (Hollins: .750, Walker: .747 and Mathieu: .747) all will graduate in the spring.
Free throws have cut into Minnesota’s leads and overall success this season, but the same problem could loom even larger next season unless some changes are made.
Observations for the long-term:
- The plan at power forward when King’s gone after next season.
Pitino is likely going to count on Buggs excelling in a stretch-4 role in an up-tempo system.
Buggs hasn’t figured out how to use his body yet.
He has a Kevin Durant-like frame – long-armed and long-legged which can be detrimental until it’s contained and used to overwhelm defenders to a fault.
Buggs is perhaps the Gophers player with the most to gain over the upcoming summer. If he learns to slow down and use controlled strides, he can get to the paint in three steps whereas his defender will need five or six.
Not even the quickest defenders in the conference will be able to cut him off at the point of attack.
- The coach-player communication line
Zach Lofton was kicked off the team from the outset.
Daequan McNeil created legal trouble for himself with his behavior and is no longer a part of the team or enrolled in school.
The Josh Martin developments were perplexing. How did he confuse his role with the team so early on? He decided he wanted out, and he transferred west to Cal Poly. He expected to play more minutes early on than he did, and maybe he made a very quick decision on an important matter.
How was there a lapse in communication that early on between Pitino and a player concerning his role on the team?
The most successful coaches around the country have an entire roster of players who believe in them and their message. The players trust that person to look out for their future and their best interests. Tom Izzo’s players respect the brand he’s built, and the players gush about him long after they’re gone. Closer to home, Jerry Kill, Gophers head football coach, earns that type of respect from dozens and dozens of college-aged kids all at once.
College basketball coaches manage – at most – 12 to 13 college-aged kids a year. There’s no way to know what actually happened between Martin and Pitino, or if Pitino was at fault, but it’s not a great reflection on a coach if a player loses all trust that early on.
Pitino’s not necessarily at fault for that at this time, however. There’s no way to evaluate a situation as murky as what happened between Martin and Pitino until more details are cleared up – and the situation has passed, so that’s unlikely.
Pitino – instead – should be given credit for the status change of the program. He’s brought four-star players to a state that has long been void of its own four-stars sticking around.
He unearthed DeAndre Mathieu and Joey King, two players who have struggled in stretches but clearly proven they can contribute at the Big Ten level in spite of where they played before.
The results clearly haven’t been immediate, but it’s unrealistic to think that they should have been at the end of his second year as head coach.
Building a program takes time, and the foundation for a turnaround seems to be on the way. Pitino has a staff that can out-recruit and out-evaluate the competition – and the next two seasons will determine if his efforts are enough.
Joe Perovich is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.