There were plenty of reasons for the Gophers to be disappointed with their performance Thursday afternoon in an 81-72 loss to Middle Tennessee in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in Milwaukee.
Point guard Nate Mason did not make his first basket until 16 minutes, 30 seconds remained in the second half. Reggie Lynch committed two fouls in a nine-second span in the first half and played only nine minutes. Jordan Murphy joined Lynch in foul trouble. The Gophers made only 6 of 21 shots from three-point range as they struggled against the Blue Raiders’ zone defense and Minnesota finished with only four offensive rebounds.
As predicted by many, 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee was too much for the fifth-seeded Gophers.
But despite having their season come to an end with a thud, coach Richard Pitino and his players would have to admit that if they had been told at the start of the season that they would make it to this point and then lose, they would have taken it in a heartbeat.
A year ago, the Gophers won only eight of 31 games and only two of 18 Big Ten games. A year ago, the Gophers went 14 games and nearly two months without a victory. A year ago, Pitino’s job might only have been saved by a buyout price tag that made it too expensive to fire him.
A year later, the Gophers were the No. 5 seed (likely too high) in the NCAA tournament and finished 24-10 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten. Williams Arena went from being an empty and cold old barn back to a raucous and packed place as the Gophers’ continued to win games. Minnesota finished fourth in the conference and earned a double-bye in last weekend’s Big Ten tournament.
But last Friday senior Akeem Springs suffered a torn Achilles’ against Michigan State. The Gophers did not have the necessary depth to handle the loss of Springs, who also brought much-needed leadership to the roster after transferring from Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Springs, though, was the only senior on a roster that will be that much better next season with guys like Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch having another year of experience and four-star recruit Isaiah Washington from St. Raymond’s (N.Y.) High School headed to Minnesota to play point guard.
Asked about what his team accomplished in turning things around, Pitino said it will take his players a few days to begin to appreciate it.
“I told our guys after the game, I said, ‘Listen, this tournament is tough because you sit there for five months or whatever and you do some unbelievable things over 33 games to flip it like we did.’” Pitino said. “Our players deserve a lot of credit to be able to do that. I know that now going into next year they raised the expectations so quickly. Next year, it’s going to be even more, obviously, when you have almost everybody back and you’ve got some exciting recruits coming in. … I’ve been in some tournaments before. I kind of know the way it works. I know our guys aren’t going to feel that way. But I think in a couple of days they’ll be very proud.”
The Gophers’ success means that Pitino’s name likely will be linked to some high-profile jobs around the country. But with university building new athletic facilities, Pitino could be happy staying put and trying to complete this process.
It’s been a long time since the future of the Gophers’ basketball program looked this bright. It’s not far-fetched to believe that this team could compete for the Big Ten title in 2017-18.
Thursday’s loss put the Gophers at 1-6 in seven tournament games in the past 20 years. But the game marked the Gophers’ first in the NCAA tournament in four years.
The Gophers won the NIT championship in Pitino’s first season in 2013-14, leading to optimism about where things might be headed. As it turned out, the Gophers were headed down a painful rebuilding path that likely came close to costing Pitino his job.
Pitino no longer has to be concerned about losing his job, but he will have to concern himself with some big expectations next season.
That should be a welcome change.