What a tortuous path this team has led us down this year. From the sky high days down in Puerto Rico to a disappointing start to the Big Ten season, turning the season around with the first four game conference winning streak in years, and then Nolen breaking his foot. And now, the Golden Gophers are simply a bad basketball team.
The sky fell a week ago, and I can’t wrap my head around the outrage surrounding the latest late game collapse. Ending the game on the wrong end of a 14-1 run and blowing a seven point lead with around four minutes to play is not a pleasant thing to watch. The Gophers should have won last night just like they should have won every game not against the top two teams in the conference since being down to their third string point guard. Once again, the importance of having a competent ball handler was demonstrated by its absence.
The Gophers shouldn’t have even been in position to blow a late game lead because they didn’t deserve to have a lead in the first place. Both the Gophers and the Spartans were doing their best to set basketball back a few decades with ghastly offense, but Minnesota’s wasn’t quite as awful. The Gophers turned in their second worst shooting performance of the season, but managed to get to the free throw line and grab just enough offensive rebounds to secure a 21-17 half time lead.
Tubby Smith doesn’t have many pieces left from which to construct a different line-up, and he gave the giant sized front line one final try last night, and it didn’t work once again. With little choice, he scrapped it, and we saw long stretches of what can best be described as the back court of the future (until the heralded freshmen and potential junior college point guard arrive) and for the first 16 minutes of the second half things went reasonably well. Chip Armelin finally made some jumpers that will hopefully, eventually, give him the chance to exploit his driving ability. Austin Hollins used his length and quickness to grab two steals and to race down court for a lay-up that at the time appeared to give the Gophers an insurmountable lead. Maverick Ahanmisi even managed to string together a scary but ultimately turnover-free 14 minutes. It was a collective performance that sparked a 14-2 run and instilled some hope for those of us planning to stay Gopher fans regardless of how this season turns out.
But for all the promise that freshmen bring, there is always plenty of peril. On the two most crucial possessions of the game, the freshmen folded. With a chance to put the game truly out of reach, Austin Hollins beat his man, drove down the baseline and attempted a two-handed wrap around dunk that came up short. It would have given the Gophers a nine-point lead and would have blown the roof off The Barn. Instead, it led to a fast break for the Spartans that resulted in a lay-up. The potential nine-point lead turned into a 5 point lead. With half a minute to play and the Gophers down two, Chip Armelin beat his man, and for some reason attempted a step back three pointer. It was the wrong shot in the wrong situation that didn’t have much chance to go in, even on Armelin’s best shooting night of his very young career.
The upperclassmen share plenty of the blame. I couldn’t begin to count the number of lazy passes that were picked off at the beginning of possessions, the failures to communicate, the off balance shots early in the shot clock or desperate fade-aways just before the buzzer. When Michigan State finally pressed in the closing minutes, Ralph Sampson III threw the ball into a crowd of three Spartans, and nearly turned it over another time while he was trying to break the press with Trevor Mbakwe. Yes, we have been reduced to our starting center and power forward trying to get the ball across the center line. With a point guard, really any point guard, the Gophers wouldn’t have been in that situation.
Tuesday’s loss didn’t put the finishing touch on a disappointing season. There is still a slim chance that the Gophers could string together three straight wins to end the season, but that likely won’t happen. This team just isn’t any good. Tubby Smith seems to understand that, realizing that the future is now. The four-post line-up has been mercifully retired, and preparations have begun for next year. If the Gophers aren’t going to dance, the freshmen might as well play. Seeing floor time in pressure situations will be invaluable in preparing them for the next few years.
It took me a day or two, but after the loss at Indiana I made peace with eventual outcome of this season. We’ll have to wait at least a few years before a Gopher team makes their third straight NCAA tournament trip for the first time ever. For that to happen, this year’s underclassmen need to get better, and playing extended minutes is the best way for that to happen.