Gophers Basketball Season Recap

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By Mike Gallagher

In a season full of more ups and downs than a VH1 Tool Academy marathon, the Gophers strangely faded off into the college basketball offseason without a peep.

Minnesota’s season came to an abrupt but expected end Friday afternoon, with a 65-54 loss to Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament.  The underdog against Xavier, the Gophers never really looked like they had much of a chance against the Musketeers after halftime, and with all that Minnesota has dealt with this season, you expected at least one more comeback run down the stretch.

But Lawrence Westbrook’s three with just under three minutes left to make it a four point game clanged off the iron, and the Gophers faithful that traveled to Milwaukee to give the Gophers one last boost were quieted.

How did the Gophers get here?  How did it come to this?

After starting off the season ranked 17th in the nation in the AP poll and with plenty of promise and talent, the Gophers quickly lost the man that was supposed to be a main contributor and one of the best freshman in the nation coming in, Royce White.  After being implicated in two separate thefts within a week and a half of each other, Tubby Smith suspended him indefinitely.

Quickly following that bad news was word that Joel Maturi would be holding the Gophers other top recruit, Trevor Mbakwe, out of action until his assault case was settled in which he was accused of punching a Florida woman in the face while attending Miami-Dade Community College.

With two recruits out the window, the Gophers other highly touted newcomer, Rodney Williams, was looking like he was going to be a freshman that could make an instant impact for the Gophers, scoring in double digits in Minnesota’s first three games of the year.

Following those first three games, the Gophers then defeated Butler 82-73, and it started to look like things were going to turn around for the Gophers, as they were proving they could hang with top competition (Butler was then ranked #10 in the nation).

The Gophers quickly came back down to earth and lost to upstart Portland and then Texas A&M in the finale of the 76 Classic.

After a non-descript end to the non-conference season with the Gophers winning five in a row and then their first two games in the Big Ten season, off the court distractions just kept coming.

Trevor Mbakwe’s court case wasn’t going anywhere quick, and Royce White was slowly losing his mind, claiming in December he was leaving the team because of the monotony of the legal process.

The most unexpected news, and what may’ve hurt them the most in the long run, came down after the Gophers lost consecutive games to Michigan State and Indiana.  Al Nolen was ruled ineligible for the spring semester on the basis of academics, and a key cog to the Gophers, especially on the defensive end of the court, was gone for the year.

With a giant void left in the Gophers lineup, Devoe Joseph stepped up and brought some positivity to the Gophers.  His 16-point, seven-assist effort against Michigan State was the kind of reassurance Gopher fans needed that things would be ok.
But with every up, of course there is a down.  Royce White, after practicing for the first time in months a week before, decided to officially withdraw from the University after an unproductive hearing in court February 1st.   The Gophers recruiting class was now reduced to nothing, with Rodney Williams becoming extremely unproductive after his first three games of the year.  Not much of a shock considering the first three contests were against Tennessee Tech, Stephen F. Austin, and Utah Valley.

The saga continued.

After the Gophers repeatedly looked dead in their NCAA tournament hopes, the emergence of Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson, and Devoe Joseph spurred the Gophers strong play over the last month of the Big Ten season, putting them in a position to get an NCAA bid with a strong showing in the Big Ten tournament.
The Gophers won three in a row, including wins over Purdue and Michigan State, to move right onto the bubble.  Despite getting blown out on Selection Sunday in the Big Ten tournament final against Ohio State, their run was enough to earn them an NCAA slot, a #11 seed to face Xavier in the first round in Milwaukee.

The rest is very disappointing history.  After facing all that, ups, downs, more downs, and then the ultimate up of making the NCAA tournament, the Gophers did not come to play in their chance to prove they belonged in the tournament.

After all that, did they belong?  They earned their way in with their Big Ten tourney run, and despite bad losses to Indiana and a 28-point loss to Michigan, you have to believe they were one of the 65 most suited teams to be there.

The real question here is was the season a success.  Obviously, starting the season ranked 17th in the nation you’d like to get more out of the year than a first round NCAA exit.

But that ranking was based on potential and talent that never saw the court.  Without Trevor Mbakwe and Royce White on this team, the Gophers would not have come close to being ranked in the preseason.  Without those two combined with the loss of Al Nolen mid-season, I’d venture to say the Gophers achieved exactly what should’ve been expected from them.

The Gophers suffered a first round loss in the NCAA’s to Texas last year and after getting nothing from their recruiting class and losing their starting point guard and one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation halfway through the year, how could the Gophers be expected to do anything more?

It’s a miracle the Gophers got to the NCAAs at all, and Tubby Smith should be commended for rallying the troops and bringing them back from their awful road loss to Michigan in their second-to-last game of the regular season.  After Al Nolen was lost things surely should’ve gone the wrong way for Minnesota, but Smith was brought to the U for a reason, and this season proves his worth to the program.

Unfortunately there were more ups than downs for the Gophers this year, especially off the court.  But on the court there were plenty of plusses, including the development of Sampson, Iverson, and Joseph.

Should players continue to develop, such as Rodney Williams and Paul Carter, the Gophers should be a formidable squad next year.  But we’ll address that in the keys to the offseason edition of our Gopher updates within the next few days.

A commendable effort in all respects from Minnesota this year, and although it did end a little earlier than everyone around the program would’ve liked, those same people will tell you they are impressed with how the season turned out considering the other possibilities and how bad the season could’ve turned.

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Comments

  1. yes, i was impressed that they arrived @ the dance at all… &, as the old saying goes: JUST WAIT ‘TIL NEXT YEAR!

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