As Minnesota’s once-promising season continues to spiral downward, there are a number of reasons we can point to for their rapid demise. Without question, though, the number one culprit for the Gophers’ collapse is injuries.
Outside of Reggie Lynch—whose college career is very likely over for well-documented reasons—every player in their top six has dealt with injuries of varying degree. An injury bug that widespread would impact any team negatively, but for a top-heavy Minnesota squad, it’s been particularly damaging.
Eric Curry’s absence has been written about all season. Curry would have served as the sixth man on what’s turned out to be a very thin bench, but after tearing his ACL over the summer, he’s missing the season. The rest of the team now resembles a MASH unit, with Minnesota’s four primary scorers playing hurt.
Dupree McBrayer’s stress reaction in his leg is so bad that he hasn’t been practicing and wears a walking boot between games. In Tuesday’s loss to Northwestern, he landed hard on the leg and had to be helped off the floor. That he returned in the second half and played through obvious pain is a testament to his toughness, but he clearly lacks the explosiveness he typically displays. Amir Coffey missed five games with a shoulder injury—during which the Gophers went 1-4—and also isn’t practicing as he continues to rehab, returning ahead of schedule Saturday to try to help the team. Nate Mason injured his ankle on December 23 against FAU, and missed the ensuing Harvard game. A couple of times this season, most notably against Maryland, he also appeared to have aggravated the hip injury he suffered in the NCAA tournament last year that required surgery, but continues to gut it out during his senior year. Like McBrayer, Mason’s displaying a lot of toughness, but clearly isn’t 100%. He’s still putting up big numbers offensively, but has struggled at times keeping up with quick point guards. Until Saturday, Jordan Murphy was the one Gopher who appeared immune to the injury bug, but he turned his ankle at Madison Square Garden and had to be helped off the floor, though he did return a few minutes later.
Add it all up and you have two players who are out (Lynch, Curry), two who aren’t practicing (Coffey, McBrayer), and two who are playing through pain (Mason, Murphy). Those six are essentially their entire team, in terms of meaningful productivity. Only the bench has been relatively injury free. Lynch’s issues are separate, but it’s fair to say that the confluence of injuries is extraordinarily bad luck, and has forced Richard Pitino to practice with a depleted team as he tries to nurse them back to health.
The rash of injuries would be bad at any time, but it’s struck at arguably the worst time of the season. Minnesota just finished a stretch in which they played five games in eleven days, including a week-long three game east coast road trip. It’s certainly not shocking they went 1-4 during that stretch.
A deeper dive into those five games reveals that Minnesota generally stayed competitive through the first half, before fading late. Against Maryland, they led by three early in the second half, before being outscored 48-34 to close the game. Against Ohio State, they opened up a 20-10 lead to start the game, and trailed by just seven at the half, but scored just 18 second half points in a blowout loss. Against Northwestern, they led by 10 in the first half and 5 with 15 minutes left in the second, then got outscored 34-21 to close the game.
“We’re obviously undermanned,” said Pitino after the Northwestern game. “And we got tired and we wore down.”
There are obviously a lot of other issues with this team on the court. Their defense, after being outstanding last year, has taken a major step back this season (they rank 114 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defense this year, after ranking 22 last year). They aren’t a good three-point shooting team, and the lack of depth is glaring. But in my view, even with the Lynch suspension, if the rest of the team had remained healthy they’d still be in the conversation for a tournament berth.
How far away is the bubble?
Minnesota’s hopes of pushing their way back to the bubble took a major hit with the loss to Northwestern. At this point, they’re not close to being in the picture. At 14-9 (3-7 Big Ten) with an RPI of 98, they’d be a borderline NIT team if the season ended today. They’d also be forced to play on the first day of the five-day Big Ten tournament as the 11 seed.
Let’s get excessively optimistic for a moment and engage in a thought exercise: What would it take for Minnesota to get to the NCAA tournament? The most realistic path, at this point, is to win the Big Ten tournament. Assuming they can jump up to the 10 seed or higher, that would require winning four games in four days at Madison Square Garden. It would also require, one would think, a return to good health to survive that gauntlet.
The second path is to fight their way back through the last eight games of the regular season to put themselves in the bubble conversation going into the Big Ten tournament. In my view, a 9-9 conference record would at least make things interesting. That means finishing 6-2 over the final eight games. Here’s their remaining schedule, along with each team’s RPI:
at (138) Iowa
at (38) Michigan
vs (67) Nebraska
at (89) Indiana
vs (28) Michigan State
at (139) Wisconsin
vs (138) Iowa
at (10) Purdue
Minnesota, one would think, would need at least one top-50 RPI win among that group to boost their resume, which means winning at Michigan or Purdue, or beating Michigan State at home. If they could pair that with wins against the rest of the mediocre teams on their slate, they’d finish 20-11 (9-9) heading into the Big Ten tournament. One or two wins there would probably do the trick. Again, this is a borderline absurd level of optimism, but if you’re looking for something to hope for, there it is.
Isaiah Washington update
In Isaiah Washington’s last four games, he’s played a total of 20 minutes, scoring six points on 2-7 shooting. After playing relatively heavy minutes through the first 19 games, it seems he’s lost Pitino’s trust, with Jamir Harris taking his spot in the rotation. After Saturday’s game in New York, Pitino talked about Washington’s struggles in making the jump to major Division I basketball.
“He’s only a freshman. He’s got talent,” said Pitino. “He’s just understanding that it’s not as easy as people think jumping from this level [NYC high school ball] to the Big Ten.”
Washington’s biggest issue, in my mind, isn’t that he looks for his shot, but that he takes a lot of low-percentage shots. His 31.6% shooting percentage stems in large part from forcing shots at the rim in heavy traffic and taking contested long-range twos and threes. His on-ball defense is strong, and he can push the pace and beat his man off the dribble better than perhaps anyone on the team.
If Minnesota continues to fade, Washington needs to get more minutes late in the season, as results become secondary to his development heading into next season.