There’s no way to sugarcoat it. This week has been a horrendous one for the Gophers men’s basketball program. On Friday, starting center Reggie Lynch was suspended indefinitely from playing in games—he’s still allowed to practice–after a university investigation found him ‘responsible’ in a sexual misconduct incident. On Saturday, prior to the Gophers’ loss to Indiana, the team announced star guard Amir Coffey suffered a shoulder injury against Illinois, and there’s no timetable for his return.
The Lynch news is particularly troublesome, and obviously goes beyond basketball. The loss of Lynch on the court is large, but to breakdown the impact there seems premature and insensitive, so I’m not going to do that. The allegations leveled against him are serious, and I’d be surprised if he takes the floor again in a Gophers uniform.
I’ve been a big fan of the job Richard Pitino’s done in his five years at the U. After stripping down the program to get his own guys in, he coached the team to a top 4 Big Ten finish and NCAA tournament berth last year, winning Big Ten Coach of the Year in the process. It’s also true, though, that there’s been a lot of turmoil during his tenure. Before we dive further into that, let’s look at what we know:
1) Daquein McNeil was arrested for domestic assault and kicked off the team in 2014.
2) Transfer Zach Lofton, who never played a game for the Gophers, was dismissed for “failing to meet expectations and obligations of the team.”
3) Guard Carlos Morris was dismissed for “conduct detrimental to the team” near the end of the 2015-16 season, after reportedly getting into a verbal altercation with Pitino.
4) Guards Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer, and former guard Kevin Dorsey, were suspended for the remainder of the 2015-16 season after a sex video was posted to Dorsey’s Twitter account in February 2016.
5) Reggie Lynch’s suspension.
You can look at this in two ways, I suppose. The first is that Pitino has been proactive in disciplining players who get into trouble. You could make an argument that those who haven’t lived up to stated expectations have been dealt with swiftly by Pitino and the athletic department, although in the case of Lynch that’s pretty debatable. The second is that Pitino has brought in a number of players who have gotten into trouble, and as the head coach he shoulders responsibility for a program that hasn’t been able to steer clear of controversy. It’s complicated and difficult, and up to each person who follows the program to reach his or her own conclusions.
My only other thought, as it pertains to the current situation, is that Athletic Director Mark Coyle’s press conference on Friday left a lot to be desired. Coyle is bound by student privacy laws that prevented him from addressing the Lynch situation directly, so he can’t be faulted for that. What he easily could have done, though, is make an opening statement that the U takes allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment seriously and has zero tolerance for such behavior. One would think, given the sheer number of such incidents that have occurred at all levels of the athletic department over the past few years, such a statement would have been a given. Instead, Coyle gave no statement, and waited until pressed by reporters to even announce Lynch’s status. In my view, Coyle seemed unprepared and overwhelmed, which is odd given that Lynch had been under investigation since October, and thus the possibility of a suspension was there for months.
The Coffey injury—an HAGL lesion in his right shoulder—is a really tough break for him and the Gophers. The injury is likely to cause him to miss at least a couple of weeks, and surgery remains a possibility, though he’ll rehab it for now. Regardless, his absence will significantly impede Minnesota’s tournament chances. Coffey has been outstanding this season, averaging 14.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. After Jordan Murphy, he’s been perhaps the Gophers second best player. (Nate Mason has also played extremely well.)
It’s no secret the Gophers have major depth issues, and that depth is going to really be tested now. Michael Hurt, Isaiah Washington, and Bakary Konate should all play major minutes, and Jamir Harris and Gaston Diedhiou, both of whom have been used sparingly, should see their roles increased. Davonte Fitzgerald also figures to see an uptick in his minutes. To this point, those players haven’t provided Pitino with a great deal of bench production, though Washington and Hurt have played better of late. If they can step up, and if the Gophers can get Coffey back this season, perhaps they can still make the tournament. In my view, that’s going to be an uphill battle.
If you really want to stretch for some good news, the Gophers played reasonably well in wins over Harvard and Illinois. In those wins, Minnesota held their opponents to a combined 23.3% shooting from behind the arc and 33.8% overall from the field. Their defense, which to this point hasn’t been as strong as it was last year–when they finished 22 in the nation in adjusted defense—showed up in a big way, and it helped to offset mediocre shooting performances from the Gophers on offense. Against Indiana, though, their 3-point defense softened, with the Hoosiers shooting 42.1% from long range.
Jordan Murphy, far-and-away Minnesota’s MVP and one of the best players in the nation, has continued his dominance. After securing double-doubles against Harvard, Illinois, and Indiana, Murphy tied Tim Duncan’s collegiate record for most double-doubles to start a season (17). Murphy shows up every night, playing with energy, skill, and passion. One could make an argument he’s putting together one of the best seasons in program history.
Aside from the off-the-court issues, one of the big challenges Minnesota will face through the rest of the season is the lack of depth in the Big Ten. As it stands right now, Minnesota is arguably a bubble team, though the loss to Indiana certainly hurt in that regard. They weren’t included in ESPN “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi’s latest tournament projection, and have an RPI of 53. As such, they need good wins to improve their resume. The problem is that the Big Ten doesn’t offer many opportunities to get those this season.
As it stands, the Gophers only play three games against teams I’d consider to be a lock for the tournament—Michigan State and Purdue (twice). Outside of those games, matchups against fellow bubble teams Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State are the only other opportunities, as of right now, to secure meaningful wins. Meanwhile, the schedule is filled with games against teams with bad RPIs, like the Hoosiers (145). Beating those teams won’t do much to build their resume, but losing to them does a lot to diminish it. Minnesota, then, probably needs to finish with an over .500 conference record and secure at least one win over Purdue or Michigan State to feel comfortable heading into Selection Sunday, barring a big run in the conference tournament.