On January 28th, 2017 things seemed to be unraveling for Minnesota Basketball. The Gophers were coming off their fifth straight loss, and were set to enter February with a 3-5 mark in Big Ten play. Negative feelings toward the program were resurfacing following a strong start to the season, and it appeared they were ready to roll over and finish at the bottom of the Big Ten. A month later the Gophers were in the midst of an eight game win streak that ended up being the defining stretch in their season. They ended up earning a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Richard Pitino was named the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year. It’s safe to say no one would have predicted all that on January 28th.
Fast-forward about 11 months and the Gophers find their season at a similar crossroad. Recent road losses to Arkansas and Nebraska, along with a subpar home victory over Drake have Dinkytown in a state of panic. People are ready to throw their season tickets away and it’s not even Christmas. It’s time for everyone to relax and take an objective look at where this team is at.
The point of this article is not to suggest everything is fine. The Gophers have issues. Their lack of depth is concerning. The bench of Isaiah Washington, Jamir Harris, Michael Hurt, Bakary Konate, and Gaston Diedhiou has produced virtually no scoring. Defense has also been a struggle. The Gophers rank 71st in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency. A year ago they ranked 21st in that category. These issues are significant and need to be addressed, but let’s not forget about what this team has.
Nate Mason was a 1st Team All-Big Ten guard a season ago. Reggie Lynch is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Jordan Murphy was 3rd Team All-Big Ten last year, and Amir Coffey was an All-Big Ten selection in the preseason this year. This is a highly talented roster with many decorated players. Even if the bench doesn’t improve, it’s possible the starting five alone could carry this team deep into March. The defensive issues are concerning, but there is no reason to expect it won’t improve. Defense was the identity of last year’s squad, and almost all of the same players have returned. It’s not likely all the players listed above forgot how to play defense. The first 12 games have likely been outliers, and it’s fair to expect the defense will improve in Big Ten play.
Four weeks ago this team was 7-0 with impressive wins over Alabama and Providence. They were the talk of the town, and the sky was seemingly the limit. The issues that exist now were present during that stretch as well. However, they were easy to overlook because the team was winning. Every team is going to have rough patches. For last year’s squad it came in January. This year it appears to have hit in early December. However, it really doesn’t matter what happens in December, January, or February. This team will be defined by what it does in March, and it has more than enough talent to be a second weekend team at the very least.