Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
As Sunday’s game at Purdue began slipping away from the Minnesota Golden Gophers, it was an all-too-familiar sight for fans of the program.
How many times had they seen their team wear down in the second half? How did it come to this?
Even with Dupree McBrayer gutting out left leg pain to make his third straight start, the shorthanded Gophers were once again no match for one of the conference’s elite as the Boilermakers cruised to an 84-60 victory, leaving Minnesota with a sub-.500 record at 15-16 in a season they began 13-3.
Folks are familiar with the story by now: Eric Curry tore his ACL before the season, Reggie Lynch got suspended — and eventually expelled — for sexual misconduct accusations, Amir Coffey hurt his shoulder and McBrayer played on virtually one leg the whole season.
Despite having an all-conference-caliber point guard in Nate Mason to go with one of the nation’s leading rebounders in Jordan Murphy, the Gophers were left without the firepower to compete thanks to a starting lineup that too often featured Michael Hurt and Bakary Konate, who collectively averaged just 5.0 points per game on the season.
The bench? It provided little boost as freshmen Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris spent most of the year scuffling, perhaps physically overmatched in the bruising Big Ten.
The Big Ten season triggered déjà vu as it began resembling the 8-23 (2-16) effort of two seasons ago.
But the 2015-16 season, however, was always going to be a bridge season, whereas this year’s bunch was supposed to go places, earning an Associated Press ranking of 12th back in November before getting derailed by unforeseen circumstances.
Even so, Richard Pitino’s Gophers of two years ago lost 10 double-digit games. This group lost 11.
The 2015-16 team beat No. 6 Maryland for a signature upset victory and court-storming. This year’s signature win was a bizarre neutral-site game against Alabama, who had to play 3-on-5 in the second half.
Of course, the year sandwiched in between was a delightful, out-of-nowhere 24-win season that resulted in an NCAA Tournament berth. But as invigorating as that unexpected success was, the unexpected downfall of 2017-18 has undone those good vibes — and then some.
No loss was more devastating on or off the court more than that of Reggie Lynch, whose departure from the team after multiple allegations of sexual assault left the program’s handling of the situation under scrutiny and removed Minnesota’s most formidable defensive player. Due to Curry’s preseason knee injury, the Gophers were forced to play the third-stringer Konate nearly 20 minutes per game.
While pundits questioned whether the Gophers should have allowed Lynch to play during the initial investigation, opponents exploited his absence repeatedly on both ends of the floor. Minnesota averaged 7.5 blocks per game with Lynch; 2.6 without him. They were outrebounded in 12 of their final 15 games.
Coffey’s injured shoulder, which was surgically repaired last Wednesday, and McBrayer’s hobbled leg left the Gophers without a viable third scorer behind Murphy and Mason. Hurt, the sophomore fill-in, excelled at passing and cutting but was perpetually hesitant to shoot, averaging just one shot every eight minutes on the season.
Unlike a professional team, the Gophers didn’t have the benefit of reinforcements from the minor leagues, practice squad or free agency. On some game days, their roster contained as many active scholarship players as it did injured, suspended and walk-on players combined.
The team was constantly fatigued, whether by the mental taxation of the season, a series of one-day scheduling turnarounds that left them jet-lagged or the physical toll of massive minutes played. Minnesota was outscored in all but two second halves since the day Lynch and Coffey went out.
Pitino may now have a degree in Crisis Management after dealing with vociferous critics for two out of three years, regardless of whether the blame is truly deserved.
With next year’s team mostly assembled, there is plenty of reason for promise as local recruits Daniel Oturu, Jarvis Omersa and Gabe Kalscheur should provide much-needed depth. A healthy group has every reason to believe it can erase this year’s woes and return to the Big Dance.
But as the current Gophers discovered, a lot can go wrong in a year.
Barring a surprise run through the Big Ten Tournament, Minnesota’s offseason will arrive within the week, which gives the Gophers a chance to start picking up the pieces of another lost campaign.
The reassembly won’t be easy.