Ordinarily the season wrap-ups on our blog come in early April. That’s because March Madness is done and the Gophers’ postseason activities generally come to an end late in the month.
This year we can do it a little earlier.
I guess I’m not really sure where to start. In short, this was one of the most unexciting, dispassionate and lifeless seasons I’ve been a part of. It was hard to watch, and even harder to write about. We should have known something was off when Zach Lofton was dismissed from the team before the season even began. Ditto for Daquien McNeil. Things really got spooky when Josh Martin decided to do the pouty face and leave because he wasn’t getting enough playing time. But from the opening tip on national television, it was quite apparent that we were dealing with a different team than we ended the 2014 season with. Something was just off. That became painfully clear in the NIT Tip-Off and, more horrifically, the beginning of the conference season. Things were quite literally over before they began, and it wasn’t fun. I mean, what is there to root for when the season is already over five games into the conference season and you’re not Rutgers?
What makes the season tougher to swallow, and what makes it far less fun than, say, the 2006-07 season (9-22 record) is that there were actual expectations this year. After a relatively thrilling run through the NIT in Richard Pitino’s first season and with a big veteran presence returning, it was only natural that the team take a step forward. But after an 0-5 start to the conference season, there wasn’t much the Gophers could do to get back on track short of some sort of historic turnaround. Watching the team after that became more of a chore than a treat. And with the goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament out of reach within the first two weeks of January, there wasn’t much to get excited about. At least when there are no expectations there’s the element of trying to knock off the favorite. The 2015 season became more of an effort in not getting embarrassed, rather than actually winning games.
Actually, let’s talk about that 0-5 start to the conference for a second. Much was made of the Gophers losing close games this year. In fact, they lost 9 games by 6 points or less, 5 of which came in the first 7 conference games. In the beginning, it just seemed like bad luck, but it soon became the narrative before being solidified as the reality — the Gophers just couldn’t get it done in tight situations.
Actually, it wasn’t even that they couldn’t get over the hump of winning close games. They were ACTIVELY LOSING close games. Late leads evaporated before our eyes in the most painful way possible. Savvy veterans clammed up in shells we’d never seen and there was clearly no court leader to turn to. Bricked free throws combined with lack of execution down the stretch spanned the entire conference season. And what began as a tough road loss to Purdue morphed into a disgusting manifestation a bad Big Ten team. It wasn’t pretty. And it was even more painful that it happened with a veteran team that achieved some decent success the previous year.
It’d be an interesting case study if it wasn’t so painful. The Gophers were expected to have one of the more dangerous backcourts in the conference between Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu, and Mo Walker, the conference’s emerging big man, was on the path to success. But Mathieu regressed in a big way, Hollins was inconsistent, and Walker just wasn’t the force he was capable of being. Momentum was often undone by JUCO-transfer Carlos Morris, while Joey King just had to try his best to bang with some of the premier forwards in the country. By the time the dust had settled, Mathieu was out of the starting lineup, Walker led the team in turnovers and Elliott Eliason was seeing single digit minutes.
In the end, the Gophers went quietly into the night without a postseason invitation. In what was some sort of black comedy, they found themselves on the NIT bubble and proactively declined any invitation to the CBI or CIT. They were swept by Penn State, lost their only matchup to Northwestern (at home), and failed to beat a ranked team. In fact, the only team they were clearly better than in the B1G this year was Rutgers. It was a season that couldn’t get over quick enough.
Let’s take a look at some of the bigger story lines this year:
DeAndre Mathieu morphed into a different player, and it wasn’t pretty
Pitino struck gold with the JUCO transfer last year, as Mathieu elevated himself to the team’s MVP, slashing and spinning and doing things I wasn’t even sure could be done with the ball. He eviscerated opponents on defense and was impressive in the clutch when the team needed him. More of the same this year, right? Not so fast. Mathieu was supposed to team with Hollins to create one of the more formidable backcourts in the conference. With a dual-senior presence in tow, the backcourt was supposed to be the thing this team DIDN’T have to worry about. Even in the beginning of the season, Mathieu was one of the top players in the nation in terms of assist/turnover ratio. But then he just sort of lost his mojo. He couldn’t score, he couldn’t dish and he just looked lost on the court. He became such a liability, in the end, that he lost his starting spot to freshman Nate Mason, who began to outplay him. He recovered somewhat down the stretch, but the damage had already been done, and one of Minnesota’s most dangerous weapons was diminished.
For the love of God, Squirrel, STOP SHOOTING
It’s been a long, long time since someone has frustrated me as much as Carlos Morris. For a guy who is so adept at getting to the hoop and doing a relatively good job of finishing, he pulls up with some of the most ridiculous field goal attempts that I’ve ever seen. It’s curious because he doesn’t seem to be all that great of a shooter. What’s even more curious is the fact that he was allowed to continue jacking up shot after shot after shot as the season wore on, even when it became obvious that he had no concept of shot selection or the ability to decipher when you should or shouldn’t pull up for a shot.
Morris was the third-leading scorer on the team almost by default. It’s kind of like how Cal Ripken Jr. got to 3,000 hits. With as many shots as he took, some of them were bound to go in. My favorite game was Maryland, where he went 7-21 from the field and 2-10 from long range. Those are NBA numbers for a superstar who is having an off night, not a JUCO transfer who isn’t even the second scoring option on his own team.
It would be one thing if the shots he generally took were understandable. And some of the time, it actually looked like the light bulb had gone off and he knew that it was his job to slash and get to the hoop. He was actually good at that. Then three minutes later he’d pull up for a three in transition in back to back possessions, completely killing any momentum the team had. It made you want to rip your hair out.
We’ll see next year if Pitino invests any time in trying to change his behavior, but something has to evolve in his offensive approach because it’s detrimental. It actually looked like he might have gotten the message later in the season, as he went six straight games with 8 or less shot attempts, but he finished the season on a tear in shot attempts.
The Curious Case of Elliott Eliason
At one point in time, there was a legitimate discussion of who would be the starting center for the Gophers – Eliason or Walker. But by the end of the season, Eliason barely played. In fact, he played 15 minutes TOTAL in the final six games of the season. 2015 will be remembered as the year that Elliott Eliason was truly forgotten.
You’d never know it now, but at one point, Eliason was piling on the points and was a daily double-double threat. This even happened in conference play as recently as 2014.
Hop into the Way Back Machine to January 16, 2014. The Gophers had just beaten then-#11 Ohio State at home to jump to 3-2 in the Big Ten. Eliason had scored 12 points and pulled down 13 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season and racked up 33 minutes. In fact, it was the eighth straight game he’d played 24 minutes or more. In this span he’d averaged 9 points and 10 rebounds per game. And most of those games came against conference opponents. Things were certainly looking rosy for Eliason in his junior season.
But that was the end. Almost literally. Since that game, he went 52 straight games without double digit rebounds or points. Granted, with Mo Walker in the picture as the starting center, there was less room for Eliason to make a mark. But I still find it astounding that as recently as a few games into the conference season last year, Eliason was an actual double-double threat. Like, he was a dangerous player. Yet, after that one game against Ohio State, he literally devolved into a clear backup overnight. What happened? We may never know.
Nate Mason – the one good thing that happened this year
In a season of awfulness, there was one shining beacon that emerged – freshman Nate Mason. He may not have scored a million points every night, but if there was someone who was consistently good the entire season, it was Mason. He’s already the guy who will make the open shot, and he’s fun to watch with the ball. Additionally, he already commands respect on the court, which is important for a team with plenty of incoming freshmen next year, and he’s not prone to turnovers. If there’s anything to be excited about next year, it’s another year of Mason.
Other random musings
– I wish Mo Walker would have gotten the ball way more this year. He was so good in the post and just didn’t get the amount of looks he deserved.
– That said, I’ve never seen someone who is so soft with the ball. It seemed like Walker would lose the ball on every other possession because he couldn’t hold onto it.
– Joey King would be a great sixth man in the Big Ten. He’s just overmatched as a power forward in this conference.
– Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou have a long, long ways to go. Like, painfully long.
– Charles Buggs will truly be unleashed next year. Just wait.
It would be fun if this season was just a blip on the radar of a team that was on the ascent, but the hard truth is that it’s almost assuredly going to get worse before it gets better. The future is bright for the program, but with the core of the team departing via graduation, there is a lot of new blood next year that is going to require some maturation. And that only comes through playing time and adversity. Konate isn’t ready to be a B1G starting center, but he’s the default option. Joey King isn’t supposed to be a starting B1G power forward, but he’s the default option. The same goes with Morris on the wing. And who starts at SG? There are a lot of questions and no immediate answers for the team, which means 2015-16 is going to be a grind. The saving grace is that expectations should hopefully be realistic, with success outlined as growth and evolution as a unit. Hopefully that makes it all less painful.
See ya next year.