For the optimists, there is always hope. The Gophers face three quality opponents in their last four games, and any combination of three wins should be enough to get them to the NCAA tournament. For the pessimists, the program is hopelessly broken, the Gophers may never win another game, and they should be in the market for a new coach. Reality is somewhere in the middle.
Since I began this blog over four years ago I’ve done my best to be a rational voice somewhere between the irrational exuberance of the good times and doom and gloom of the bad times, of which there have been plenty lately. I see it as my responsibility to provide reasonable commentary. To do that now, unfortunately, means I need to tell you that this season is over.
Yes, three more wins, tournament, etc. I get that. If the hope of a tournament bid keeps you interested until the end of the season, more power to you. However, it is time for the team and fans to move on from this season and starting focusing on next season. I’ve belabored the point that this is a young team with a lot of players coming back next season, assuming they have a reason to come back. The last four games are about giving them that reason to come back.
No one wants to declare a season over before the final horn sounds in the final game. However, failing to prepare for next season when there is an opportunity to do so would be a disservice to the program and its players. Tubby Smith should start focusing on next year.
Ralph Sampson III is the only player on the active roster who for sure will not be back next year. His play has regressed like no athlete I can remember, and playing him neither helps the Gophers win this year nor helps them win next year. Elliott Eliason should be starting, and should be playing as many minutes as reasonably possible. I’m not suggesting playing him 35 minutes per game, but I am suggesting that he should see the vast majority of minutes at the center position.
Benching Minnesota’s only senior isn’t the only line-up change that can salvage some value from another disappointing season. Tubby Smith needs to finally and permanently ditch his mass substitutions and quick trigger when players make a mistake. Of course he won’t do this, but in the odd event that Coach Smith stumbles across this, I at least owe him my rationale. Acknowledging that the season is over, and with the goal of helping the team win next year, one of the main priorities should be to establish a clear rotations for next year. I understand, to a point, why the Gophers have a ten man rotation. It is not abundantly clear which eight players deserve the most minutes. Unfortunately, there appears to have been only a limited effort to solve this riddle. In the final four games of the season, there should be four different starting line-ups. In each game the starters should get starters minutes, and barring injury or foul trouble, only three substitutes should see meaningful minutes. Sampson of course should not be included in this group, and neither should Andre Ingram. Maverick Ahanmisi should see some minutes, but should be the last man off the bench in the new shortened rotation. This may not lead to better play or more wins, but it will provide an opportunity for the coaching staff to truly evaluate what they will have next year. Trying to find the right combination of players in February means the process of finding the right players has gone horribly wrong. At least this would give the team a head start next year.
The goal for the Gophers, at this point, should be to get to seven wins which should be enough to make the NIT. Getting two more wins will be a tall task the way they are playing, but it is good to have goals. I’m not going to try to make the argument that the NIT would be a more favorable outcome than a first round loss in the NCAA tournament. The free publicity alone from an NCAA bid is worth more than any number of NIT wins. However, to declare an NIT appearance a complete waste is completely inaccurate. It gives players and coaches more practice time, more games, and more opportunities to fix what is wrong. An NIT run can also add a silver lining to an otherwise cloudy season, and keeping the players heads up is essential to the health of the program.
Transfers have been an epidemic under Tubby Smith. Valuable players have left, and less valuable last second additions have been unable to replace them. Stemming the transfer tide should be priority number one for the coaching staff, and the best way to do this is to give them a fair chance to show what they can do, and win a few games in the process, even if wins come in a meaningless tournament.