This article is part one of our season review. Beginning with individual players and ultimately covering the progress of the team as a whole and the best and worst games of the year, we will dissect the season in just enough detail to provide that basketball fix that can never quite be satisfied during the summer months.
In the last few weeks, the unsurprising news broke that Travis Busch and Kevin Payton have joined departing seniors Jonathan Williams and Jamal Abu-Shamala and have ended their Gopher careers. None of these players ever amounted to much on the court. They were either too short, too slow, too out of shape, or too tentative to garner significant minutes or make significant contributions on the floor. In a way, all four mark the end of an era, and must have empathized with buggy whip manufactures and the not so tech-savvy owner of the world’s largest laser disc collections. History has passed them by.
There was a time in the not so distant past that the four now former Gophers would have played integral roles on the team. Payton and Abu-Shamala are former starters. Busch and Williams (if he had avoided the injury bug) were more than scrubs at times during their careers. The Seniors got out just in time, Busch and Payton read the writing on the wall, did a little math, and realized that there just would not be room for them when Tubby Smith’s next highly touted recruiting class arrives on campus this fall.
Kevin Payton will be the Gopher’s biggest loss, and leave the biggest hole to fill. It won’t be on the basketball court though. Payton didn’t score during his final season, which is understandable given his four field goal attempts and two free throw attempts. Finding a scrub to fill in 3.7 minutes per game in about one fourth of the season won’t be hard either. Payton’s contribution was always more than statistics.
On a team with no player leadership and a new coach, Payton often times seemed like the glue holding everything together. If the team was too tense he could relax them with a joke in an Austrian accent. If they were lackadaisical, he was never afraid to call his teammates out. If they blew a defensive assignment or forgot to box out, he made sure they knew about it before they even got back to the huddle. He was also the first off the bench to congratulate a teammate and to get the occasionally skeptical Williams Arena crowd into the game.
Some will argue that the cheer leading should be left to the cheerleaders, and that having a towel waver on the bench just takes away the scholarship of a more talented player that will actually play meaningful minutes. Minnesota’s talent level needed an upgrade after the Monson years, obviously. Regardless of talent level though, there will always be a worst player on the team. Payton made as much of this as he could, and was one of the most important players on the team without making a single basket (if you are still skeptical, don’t forget how dreadful the Gophers were during his suspension).
Whoever finds himself at the end of the bench will have big shoes to fill. He will have more talent and will definitely have a better mindset for big time college basketball. He’ll also need to be a leader. A coach can’t do it all. Sometimes a team needs leadership at both ends of the bench.