It’s been a slow, painful burn to get this point. The Gophers, coming into the season with reasonable expectations of finding their way to the NCAA Tournament after cruising to an NIT championship, looked primed and ready to go following a solid, yet unspectacular non-conference slate. They didn’t look like world-beaters by any means, but they appeared capable of at least getting the job done and stealing a game here or there. At the very least, being part of the bubble conversation was an expectation, if not a requirement to show some growth.
A veteran backcourt, cemented with upperclassmen and expected to be one of the best in the conference, has struggled mightily. Last year’s MVP, Deandre Mathieu, is now benched in favor of a true freshman until further notice, and Andre Hollins was shooting 20% from the field until a recent two-game outburst. Carlos Morris thinks he can make every shot he takes and refuses to fix his shot selection. Elliott Eliason has devolved into a 7-foot benchwarmer, and Mo Walker can barely stay on the court before getting into foul trouble. The team’s depth has been turned inside out with defections and arrests, and now finds itself without a true leader or someone it can look to when things get tough. Watching Bakary Konate learn how to play basketball in the middle of the conference season is not a pretty sight.
And that’s just the overview of the personnel. Record-wise, the Gophers clock in at a pathetic 1-6 in conference play, having largely given away every game with the exception of Maryland, where they were just straight up overmatched. Ordinarily, you might forgive a team for dropping road games to Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska, and that’s true for, perhaps, a young or developing team. But a veteran-laden team that gives up a multiple nine-point leads in the second half, or scores a remedial 49 points against a Cornhusker team begging to be handed a loss has no excuse. There’s little makeup for this pig, and we pretty much know what we’re working with at this point — a lower-tier B1G team. And that’s the saddest part. It’s not even a plateau; it’s a regression.
So now what? The Gophers started the season with an expectation, in my mind, of finishing either 9-9 or 10-8 in the conference. That included largely holding court at home and picking up a road win here and there. Fairly attainable with a soft schedule this year. Now? The team can pretty much only be reasonably expected to pick up six more wins. A couple of Penn State victories, handling Purdue, Nebraska and Northwestern at home and (hopefully) picking up a win against Illinois. That’s it. Road games include Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana, which, if we’re going by historicals so far, the team has shown no ability to even beat bad teams on the road, let alone good ones. In fact, if this team even wants to sniff 10 wins, it has to win all those powderpuff games I just mentioned, while beating three top-25 teams on the road. That’s how ridiculous this season has already become, and it’s not even February.
That said, how do you enjoy the rest of the season? Well, you can hope that they go 9-2 down the stretch and make the Big Dance, but that’s not terribly realistic. I guess if you’re into silver linings, like I am, you can root for a return to NIT glory. That’s basically all the team has to live for at this point. Otherwise, it’s probably time to start hoping the newcomers start developing at a good rate. Nate Mason looks like he has a really bright future. Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou are the future posts, and their development into impact players is crucial for the future of the team.
Above all, I’m rooting for Carlos Morris to improve his shot selection to the point where I don’t have to cringe every time he has the ball at the top of the key. I’m not sure I can handle another year and a half of that.
That’s what this season has come to. Time to accept it.