We laughed in disbelief, cried at Ed Hightower’s injustices, scratched our heads, threw pillows and even cheered wildly at times, but the roller coaster that was the 2009-10 season mercifully came to an end in a 65-54 loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to the Xavier Musketeers.
The specifics of the game are pretty unimportant as the same stories that accompany most Gopher losses manifested themselves on Friday. Poor shooting, lack of rebounding presence, a suspect half-court offense and little intensity; the Gopher team that took down Penn State, Michigan State and Purdue in the Big Ten tournament did not show up in the Big Dance.
With the loss came the termination of an endlessly frustrating season – one that saw Minnesota begin the season ranked #16 in the nation with initial hopes of making a deep postseason run. Tubby Smith was returning most of his 2008-09 team, adding two ultra-talented players in Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe and the Gophers looked to be well-positioned to stay near the top of the conference for most of the season. Even when legal issues initially kept both recruits off the court the team looked talented enough to handle their absences, taking down Butler in the 66 Classic in a November holiday tournament.
Unfortunately the Butler win was arguably the peak of the season. From there the Gophers would lose three winnable games to Portland, Texas A&M and Miami, losses that would expose the team’s inability to finish close games and nearly put a nail the team’s at-large chances when all was said and done.
After going 9-3 in non-conference play, the Gophers started Big Ten play with two solid victories over conference doormats Penn State and Iowa. Even with an 11-point win over Ohio State (Evan Turner’s first game back from a broken vertebrae) losses to Purdue and Michigan State began to solidify Minnesota’s position as a tier 2 Big Ten team.
The situation became even more bleak when the Gophers dropped an inexcusable contest at Indiana before Al Nolen, perhaps the conference’s best lock-down defensive player, became academically ineligible. Suddenly, a season that had received so much hype and began with such promise had curdled into mediocrity.
With the exception of two ugly losses to Michigan, the Gophers held their own against the teams they should have beaten and even stole a game from the hated Badgers at home, helping propel a late season surge that put them in a position to make the NCAA Tournament. Defying all expectations, Minnesota put together a three-game run in the Big Ten tournament, taking down two nationally ranked teams in the process and securing an at-large berth in the Big Dance. What had seemed like a given in the beginning felt like a small victory in the end. Such was the 2009-10 season.
One of the ongoing annoyances of the season was the fact that Minnesota was in position to win eight of its 12 losses and even gave up double digit leads in a few games, most notably in home losses to Michigan State and Purdue. It wasn’t the fact that they lost, but it was how they lost. Poor execution down the stretch almost always marred Gopher losses and made the roller coaster season even more frustrating. Losing a close game on your own terms stings more than getting outplayed, and the Gophers oftentimes had trouble just overcoming themselves.
But while it’s easy to trash the team for often losing focus and not achieving expectations, it’s important to realize the adversity that this year’s squad had to overcome. It’s true that they returned several players from the previous season, but the loss of Al Nolen in the middle of the year was a huge blow. After his ineligibility the team’s defensive presence, their identity and calling card, was dealt a significant blow. Their full-court press was much less effective and Devoe Joseph, a natural shooting guard, was forced to step in and handle the play-calling duties. After Nolen’s benching, the 2009-10 Gophers were basically the 2008-09 Gophers without Al Nolen.
So let’s ask the question before pointing fingers. Who are the Gophers without Royce White, Trevor Mbakwe and Al Nolen? They certainly aren’t a top-20 team. They probably even aren’t a top-30 team. In fact, they are almost certainly a bubble team, much like the 08-09 team was. The only major difference was that the 09-10 team didn’t have their best defensive player and veteran starting point guard. I would argue that their 11th-seed, first round loss was pretty much what should have been expected considering the on-court product that was put together. Sure, expectations were high to begin, but they should have been modified after two big-time recruits didn’t show up and a solid veteran was put to pasture.
In a later post I plan to build on that argument and defend Tubby Smith in the wake of people demanding better performance, but for now I think it’s fair to say that, considering the off-court issues that happened this year, the 09-10 season should be viewed as a slight success.
- Yes he was the team’s leading scorer and yes he often was instrumental in keeping the Gophers in some games, but I am not sad to see Lawrence Westbrook move on. I’ll always be thankful for his game winning shot at Wisconsin in 2008, but the divisive, prima donna attitude and Superman impressions began to get old. Towards the end of this season it was actually refreshing to see him on the bench at times. This season he led the team in turnovers and field goals attempted and only had one more assist (75) than TOs (74).
- Blake Hoffarber is back! After an awful sophomore slump, Hoffarber rebounded to become one of the team’s more dangerous scorers and was frequently recognized by the other team as a force to be reckoned with. While his stats didn’t reflect it in the final month of the season, Hoffarber received significant on-court attention from opposing teams, allowing the rest of the offense an opportunity to open up.
- One of the biggest travesties of the season was Damian Johnson’s failure to be included in the Big Ten All-Defensive team. Not only did he lead the conference in steals, but he was a force down low, blocking 67 shots during the season. Unbelievable. Johnson was arguably the team MVP and, unlike Westbrook, will be sorely missed next season.
- Devoe Joseph looked like he was in way over his head when he first took over for the ineligible Nolen, but after a few weeks running the offense, he began to take off. Scoring in double digits in eight of the final 12 games, Joseph began to look like the scorer that people expected him to be going into the season.
- Invisible for much of the season, Colton Iverson unexpectedly reappeared in final two weeks to partially redeem himself, which begs the question: Did he figure it out? With an unimpressive final two games, the answer is still unclear and with someone like Elliott Eliason coming to town, Iverson needs to get his game in order sooner rather than later.
- Ralph Sampson still has a ways to go before he can be considered a respectable Big Ten center. Unable to battle physically down low, he constantly had to settle for hook shots and 15 foot jumpers. In fact, it’s safe to say that Damian Johnson was twice the post player that Sampson was. The good news was that Sampson added size to his frame from his freshman year. The bad news was that he doesn’t know what to do with it.
- Two newcomers, Rodney Williams and Justin Cobbs, didn’t make huge splashes, but also didn’t disappoint. With one year under his belt, Williams should see his playing time increase and will hopefully become a more-athletic version of Damian Johnson. Cobbs, on the other hand, might find extra PT hard to come by with Nolen and Joseph sharing time at the point. Cobbs made no indication that he was capable of handling Big Ten point guard duties in 09-10.