Where do you even begin on a recap of a season like this? One that failed to follow any sort of blueprint, leaving us scratching our heads more often than not. I suppose I’ll start at the end.
Be excited for next year.
In a year where down was up, left was right, and things in Gopher Nation were seldom fair, the team clawed its way from the lowest point in years to rebound and find itself in the championship game of the NIT. Granted, it wasn’t the exact place fans envisioned the team being when the season first opened, but it also wasn’t the place we thought they’d be after dropping six straight conference games and facing off against Nebraska to battle it out for last place in the conference. That was the bottom.
It’s safe to say the Gophers didn’t do what we expected of them this season, which was a middle of the road finish and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. However, those expectations were set when we had a full lineup that included Trevor Mbakwe. Instead, a brutal knee injury ended his season before it even really began and put the Gophers at a severe disadvantage before conference play even started.
I wrote after the injury happened that fans should throw out all previous expectations and focus on the development of the young players that were left. Expecting similar production from the team without a first-team all-conference player like Mbakwe just wasn’t fair. However, the team came out just as solid, winning six straight games – including two against BCS conference opponents – and appearing to not have missed a beat.
Unfortunately, this re-set expectations at a previous level for many people who still expected decent-to-good things from the team. There were instances where the team choked away games (Michigan State, Iowa), nearly pulled out some thrilling victories (Iowa, Wisconsin) or even beat some nationally relevant opponents (Indiana). But in the end the Gophers ended up right where they should have been after the Mbakwe injury – ahead of Penn State and Nebraska but behind everyone else.
I say this because it was clear from several of the games that Minnesota didn’t have that final piece to get them over the hump. Whether it was actual talent, veteran experience or a combination of both, on more than one occasion it was evident that the availability of Mbakwe would have had Minnesota in the win column a few more times. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to assume that with Mbakwe the Gophers would have won both Iowa games, the road game at Illinois, and home games against Michigan State and Wisconsin. Those wins would have put them at 11-7 in the conference and well into the top half.
Of course, those are assumptions and it’s entirely possible that things wouldn’t have played out that way. But it’s interesting to think about the tremendous impact the Mbakwe loss had on the team and how close they were on several occasions to getting over the hump and into the win column. Without Mbakwe they were an immature, shaky team with a severe lack of confidence. And it showed on many, many occasions.
But the struggles weren’t met without reward. For every nail-biting loss and hair-pulling ending, the young players were learning from their mistakes and quickly gaining veteran experience. This experience showed in the final quarter of the season when the team actually ended up winning six of eight (seven of those played away from Williams Arena) en route to the NIT championship. Dre Hollins was the biggest example of the team’s growth and essentially turned into the team’s go-to player overnight. Hollins scored 10 more points in eight of the final nine games and turned in four 20-plus point performances.
Also reinforcing the team’s growth was its run through the NIT where it faced talented teams on the road in pressure situations. As I wrote earlier, the fact that team was able to pull itself up and not only compete against strong teams in a hostile environment, but win the game, showed just how much they had grown over the season. Instead of throwing the games away we saw them instead bear down and close things out. It wasn’t always pretty, but the results where there.
Being the NIT runner-up isn’t a glorious honor, but considering where many of us thought the Gophers would be after the Mbakwe injury, it’s a place where we should be comfortable with finishing.
As I said at the beginning – be excited for next year. The growth we saw in the past few weeks isn’t a mirage, it’s an accurate depiction of what this team is capable of. An interesting takeaway from the NIT was the fact that Minnesota played exactly ZERO seniors the whole way. What that means is that the players we saw on the court when they were playing their best are the same players we’ll be seeing next year when the team takes the floor. And considering the type of inspired play we witnessed, there are reasons to be excited.
One of those reasons is not only are they returning basically everyone (except Ralph Sampson, more on that in a second), but we also will likely be bringing back our own Trevor Mbakwe. And Mbakwe will be out to show that he is NBA material. Think about it – we’ll be taking the team we had this year, adding in some big-time game experience and throwing our physical and emotional leader back on the floor to run things. My arms tingle just thinking about it. Optimism is not unwarranted.
Another reason to be excited? No more Ralph Sampson. Now, I’m not going to make this a Sampson rant fest. He was a solid four-year contributor, a completely underrated beast on defense (seriously, he changed the game when he was out there, and was a big reason for the team’s success on defense the past few years), and much-needed veteran presence. THAT SAID, it was apparent this year that he didn’t fit the style of play that the team needed to run. As we saw in the final few games, these guys are at their best when they are in transition and running the floor. That was never Sampson’s way. He was methodical with the ball, scoped out angles and generally took his time. Unfortunately, this was the outlier compared to the rest of the team, and he basically slowed everyone down when he was out there. Being a senior, however, saw the court a lot and it seemed like Tubby, at times, felt obligated to have him out there. With Sampson graduated, things will open up for Elliott Eliason, who also had his share of growth this year.
And who can forget the explosion from Rodney Williams, who found his calling after Mbakwe went down, forcing a move to the four-spot. Williams finished the year on a tear, scoring in double figures in nine straight games including four straight 20-point games. Moving him closer to the bucket where he has a significant leaping advantage changed the dynamic of his game and freed him up to do what he does best – play above the rim. With other guys taking the focus off of him in the final stretch of the season, Williams really came into his own and became the scoring threat we’d thought he would always be. He will be a key component to the team’s success next year, and proving that he’s capable of having big games at key junctures is reassuring.
In the end, it was an entertaining season for many of the wrong reasons. Minnesota lost a lot of close games, lost its best player and generally underachieved. However, the team grew up quickly in the final stretch of the year, Dre Hollins emerged from nowhere, and we got the news the Mbakwe will likely be back come next season. Given how last year ended and the dark offseason we had, ending on a relative high note is a welcome alternative to the end of the year.
And who knows, there may be more good news to come this summer.
Also, be sure to check back often this summer. There will be plenty of story lines playing out and there promises to be lots to talk about.