Okay, so I usually do a season-ending recap soon after the final game of the season when the misery/optimism/exhaling is extremely fresh. It provides the best foundation to really review the season, scrutinize what went wrong, praise what went right and dream of the following year when everything will be better … or something. This year, though, those plans were derailed as our lovable, huggable, mustachioed Tubby Smith was ousted the DAY AFTER the season ended. The ink hadn’t even dried from writing Florida into our March Madness brackets when it was announced that the Gophers would be moving in a new head coaching direction. Since then it’s been a whirlwind of rumors, hires, terrible takes, and fervent discussion. Now that the dust has settled and the coaching staff is 100% been hired I think it’s high time we take a look back at another roller coaster of a season. Really, though, is there ever a Gophers season that isn’t?
What went right:
As far as overall seasons go, 2012-13 was pretty successful. I mean, any season that ends with a victory in the NCAA Tournament has to be viewed positively. I’m talking from a 30,000-ft. view here. The Gophers did what only 31 other teams were able to do – win a game in the first round of the tournament. And no, play-in games don’t count. Further, they played well enough to ascend to #8 in the nation at one point and were a national story early in the season. This is good stuff!
The problem was that the Gophers limped into the tournament on the merit of only a few high-profile wins. They beat some great teams, but they didn’t win consistently when it mattered. Bad losses haunted them throughout the year and they never were able to find a groove in conference play. In the end, they entered the tournament having failed to meet much of the fan base’s expectations. It’s hard to blame them. Tubby Smith had arguably his best team on the court for the entire year, one of the best front courts in the nation and a veteran team that was poised to do some real damage. The team was expected to compete in the upper half of the conference and even make a nice run in the tournament. But underachievement aside, the Gophers once again won 20 games and played competitively against some of the country’s best teams.
The Gophers got a gift when Mbakwe was granted an extra year to finish off his career. Suddenly Minnesota had one of the conference’s premier forwards playing a big role on a veteran team. Mbakwe, after a slow, albeit short acclimation process ended up leading the conference in rebounding by a wide margin and was a double-double threat in every game he played. He ended up being the rock of the Gophers on both ends of the court and was their most consistent weapon. In short, when he was off the court the Gophers struggled. Foul trouble was often his kryptonite, but he was a game-changer when on the court.
Perhaps no one showed greater growth this season than the shorter Hollins, and his ability to grow into a guard that can take over a game on his own was exciting. Watching Hollins on a nightly basis was not only a treat, it was a showcase of just how lucky the Gophers are to have a player that can score on a consistent basis using his jump shot. While he wasn’t a consistent 15-point threat the entire season, by the final month it was clear that he had discovered how to score in large quantities. And his ability to completely explode at any given moment continues to be a thrilling prospect. His 41-point game against Memphis was the high-water mark, but keep in mind that he ended the season scoring 24+ points in three of his final four games and looked almost unstoppable. Hollins looks to be one of the more-talked about guards in the conference heading into next season, and will almost certainly be the main offensive weapon for the Gophers in 2013-14.
Wins over top teams
In a season that underachieved so mightily it’s amazing to recount the teams that the Gophers actually did beat. Highlighted by one of the more thrilling games in Gopher history in their win over then-#1 Indiana, the Gophers also racked up wins over Michigan State, then-#12 Illinois on the road, Memphis, and a home win against Wisconsin when they needed it most. Many of the rest of the games weren’t pretty, but the Gophers won a lot of games over really, really good teams. They were a true anomaly.
But, my God, that Indiana game. I’d argue that the UCLA was a bigger highlight of the season, but the victory over the Hoosiers comes in a close, close second. It’s not every day that a team gets a chance to take down the #1 team in the nation on it’s home court. Even rarer still does it actually come to fruition. And even rarer still does that victory come at a time when a team is fighting for its postseason life. It was truly an amazing victory and a game that will continue to be referenced in future recounts of great Minnesota wins.
What went wrong:
It hurts to have to recount this, but luckily there aren’t a whole lot singular terrible moments that stand out as particularly awful. There is just a whole bunch of ongoing stupidity that stuck around throughout the season and made things miserable. The Northwestern loss was bad in that it pretty much set the tone for struggling and inconsistency the rest of the season, but there was just general ineptitude throughout the year that was very frustrating.
Hey, look. No bench!
The Gophers started the season having a “deep” team that was supposed to be able to plug holes whenever the starters needed a breather. In reality, it turned out that while Minnesota had a very capable starting five, talent off the bench was almost non-existent. The team never settled on or found a legitimate sixth man, and outside of a Elliott Eliason and Andre Ingram, it was hard to convince me that anyone else should have seen the floor other than sparse minutes here or there. There were no capable guards to fill holes when either of the Hollinses had to take a rest, and Julian Welch and Maverick Ahanmisi often did more harm than good. Ahanmisi showed himself to be a pretty capable spot-up shooter, but in the end the Gophers had to hope that their starters could play nearly the whole game. And if someone got into early foul trouble (which happened often); watch out.
Which leads me to my next observation:
All around terrible substitution patterns
It’s one thing to tinker with a lineup early in the season when players are finding their groove and teams aren’t exactly sure what everyone is capable of. It’s an entirely different animal when lineups are being tinkered with and completely overhauled well into March. Perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of this season for me was having to be an armchair coach. I hate being an armchair coach. I am not a coach. I have no idea how to coach a college basketball team. But when a coach is doing something that is obviously not working and I know why it’s not working then we have a real problem.
The substitution patterns this year were downright indefensible. For a team that relies so much on its starting five players, it was simply mind-boggling to me how often we would see extended minutes for 10 different players. By January it was clear that only 7-8 players should ever see the court in a given game. Players like Mo Walker and Oto Osenieks, frankly, have no business seeing minutes on the court, yet we continually saw various combinations of all 10 players seeing minutes together. What ended up happening? The team struggled. There was no connectivity between lineups, players were obviously uncomfortable with each other, and the best talent was rarely on the court at the same time.
I think this gripe can be epitomized by the Gophers late-season loss to Nebraska. In this game the starting lineup did not feature Andre Hollins – perhaps the team’s best player. Instead, it inexplicably featured a lineup full of seniors that had started previously as an honorary lineup for Senior Day the previous game. With the exception of Senior Day (again, an honorary lineup), this particular five players had not started together all season. This game was played on March 6. The Gophers lost. An entirely NEW lineup on MARCH 6 when the Gophers were fighting for their postseason. You’ve got to be kidding me.
Which leads me to my final observation:
This might be the hardest one to write, only because I was a staunch Tubby defender as late as Feb. 17 when they lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes in horrific fashion. It was after that loss that I did a complete 180 and realized that it was time to find a new coach. I always appreciated Tubby’s defensive-minded approach to the game. Honestly, during his tenure it was the defense that kept the Gophers so close in so many games and made so many of them winnable. Unfortunately, it was the offensive ineptitude and inability to adjust in the middle of a game that led to so many losses. By the end, the Gophers were just too easy to figure out and teams began to realize that all they needed to do was run a zone defense to completely shut down the Gophers
This was never more evident than against Northwestern or on the road against Iowa. Never have I seen a team so unprepared to face an opposing defense. They almost literally could not score. It was sad more than it was embarrassing, realizing that in order for the Gophers to grow they had to find a coach who knew how to adjust.
Tubby was a good coach and he put the Gophers in a position to win a lot of games, but it was clear to me by the final two months of the season that, with his best roster to date, he had reached his peak. I’ll give him all the credit in the world for bringing the Gophers back from oblivion, but with another underachieving season under his belt, this time with a very talented group of players, it just became time to go.
So now what?
I have a similar feeling at the end of this year that I did last year – unfulfilled but optimistic. After last year we saw a young team make a deep run through the NIT and show us a lot of good things. This made me excited for this year because they had loads of talent and had shown the ability to do good things. Unfortunately, as we all saw, that did not pan out.
This year is a bit different. The season was underwhelming, but with new blood in at the head coaching position I’m optimistic. Pitino already appears to be a driven coach and has plenty to prove with this being his first big-time gig. And instead of going into next year with humongous expectations, we can be a little more relaxed and let Richard do his thing. Should we have dreams of a Sweet Sixteen? Probably not. But it’s not out of the question to think that Pitino can inspire this team to do great things. He runs a fun system, will be extremely motivated and has some decent weapons to work with. It won’t be an automatic 20-win season like we’re used to, but it will be fun to rally behind a team that has something to prove, and that will make it all the more entertaining and rewarding.
And until then, I hope everyone had as much fun reading this stuff as I had writing it. I usually take the summers off to stay sane and remember that there’s more out there than Gopher basketball, but I already can’t wait until we’re breaking down the starting lineups for next year. Stay toasty this summer, friends, and feel free to suggest a real-life tweet-up. I love meeting fellow fans out and about.