On Wednesday, January 3, Minnesota dispatched Illinois 77-67 at the Barn. Reggie Lynch had 11 points, 12 rebounds and 7 blocks, Amir Coffey added 16 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and the Gophers improved to 13-3 overall and 2-1 in the conference. Although a few warts had been exposed, at the very worst Minnesota looked like a team on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, and if everything came together, perhaps a team that could still make a deep run in March.
Now, just nine days later, the season appears on the brink of collapse.
Surely some will disagree with that assertion. You could make an argument, I suppose, that Minnesota can still right the ship; get Coffey back from injury, make a run in the Big Ten tournament and grab an NCAA bid. To me, you have to stretch pretty far to talk yourself into that line of thinking.
The past nine days have been an unmitigated disaster. The Lynch story is awful, and has thrust the athletic department, once again, into the national spotlight due to allegations of sexual harassment and assault. The U did itself no favors with the awful press conference from athletic director Mark Coyle, and the revelation that they knew, prior to that press conference, that Lynch was under investigation by the EOAA for yet another allegation of sexual misconduct, the third in which he’s been investigated by the school (he was cleared in the first). On Wednesday, Lynch’s case entered the surreal, after his lawyer held a press conference in which he reportedly lamented that accusers’ names aren’t made public, questioned when there would be a #whataboutme campaign for men falsely accused of sexual misconduct, and appeared to make an analogy between those accused in the Me Too movement and Japanese-Americans imprisoned in internment camps during World War II.
On the court, Minnesota lost a close game to a similarly undermanned Indiana team at home, with Jordan Murphy missing the front end of a one-and-one that could have given Minnesota the lead with 25 seconds left. The Gophers didn’t play particularly well against Indiana, but showed fight throughout, with Murphy tying Tim Duncan’s record for consecutive double-doubles to start a season with 17.
On Wednesday, against Northwestern, Minnesota showed no fight at all. Playing against a mediocre Wildcats team likely headed to the NIT, the Gophers trailed by 22 at the half, on the way to an 83-60 shellacking. Murphy finished with 8 points and 2 rebounds, Nate Mason had 9 points before earning a technical foul and fouling out, and Dupree McBrayer picked up a second half technical as well. Their body language was horrible, the players seemed frustrated with each other, and the energy was low. It was as poor a performance as I ever remember seeing from Minnesota.
We’ve seen seasons collapse like this before. The 2010-11 Gophers were ranked No.18 18 in the country as late as February 6, before losing 10 of their last 11 and failing to even make the NIT. That season, though, was derailed by the loss of two point guards in a three-week span. Devoe Joseph announced he was transferring in early January, and Al Nolen suffered a season-ending injury later that month. With no one to play the point, Blake Hoffarber was forced to run the offense, after having not played the position at all in college. He struggled there, and Minnesota couldn’t recover.
There’s no question injuries have hit this year’s Gophers hard as well. Even before the events of the past week and a half, Eric Curry’s injury proved to be a huge one, and exposed the Gophers’ biggest weakness, lack of depth. Coffey was playing outstanding basketball before his injury, and was a critical component on both ends of the floor. McBrayer, to his credit, is playing through a leg injury that’s caused him to miss two games this season and wear a walking boot off the court. Lynch aside, those losses may have been enough to curtail the season.
Nevertheless, I thought the Gophers would at least remain competitive. They still have two of the best players in the Big Ten, in Murphy and Mason. Those two, along with McBrayer, should be enough to at least keep the Gophers in games against teams like Northwestern. But the lack of depth is so glaring now that it sure seems like it’s going to take herculean efforts from those three to keep them close. When they don’t play well, as was the case Wednesday, they’re at risk of getting blown out, because there doesn’t seem to be anyone to pick up the slack.
Isaiah Washington was supposed to be one of the main bench contributors this season, serving as the team’s sixth man before taking over for Nate Mason next year. I’m still a believer in Washington. I think he’s going to be a good player, and he shows flashes that suggest there’s a star in the making. He’s a strong on-ball defender, can blow past defenders, and finds his teammates in transition well. After a five-turnover game against Miami, he’s averaged just one turnover/game in the 10 contests since. His shot selection, though, remains very poor. After Wednesday’s 2-for-12 performance, he’s now shooting 32.5% from the field, and 16.3% from three, both last on the team. Despite this, he’s shooting .43 shots/minute, which leads the team.
“It just seems like every time he touches it, he shoots it,” Richard Pitino lamented to reporters recently.
Washington’s struggles have hampered Minnesota’s already short bench, and come as former Champlin Park point guard McKinley Wright IV is starring as a freshman at Colorado. Although they offered scholarships to both, Minnesota signed Washington first, after which Wright committed to the Buffaloes. On the season, Wright’s averaging 15.6 points, 5.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game, and last week earned Pac 12 player of the week honors, leading the team to wins over (4) Arizona State and (14) Arizona. There’s a long way to go in the careers of both, but right now Wright is finding more early success than his fellow freshman point guard.
It’s unclear where Minnesota goes from here. With more than two-thirds of the Big Ten season remaining, the Gophers needs to hope Murphy and Mason can carry the team and the second unit finds a way to produce. If that happens, and they get Coffey back at some point, perhaps they can dig out of the huge hole they suddenly find themselves in. For the time being, though, the NCAA tournament berth that seemed like a lock in late November now appears to be little more than a longshot.