Watching the Gophers for the last few seasons has been a true experience. There have been as many highs as there have been lows and, even though many of the years haven’t reached expectations they’ve been completely enthralling and entertaining, which is really what we’re all in this for anyways. At least I am. That’s why I’m glad that this season was no different. Even in a season that was basically devoid of expectations at the beginning, there was still the whole, “I wonder how Richard Pitino will do in his first season” story line that persevered throughout the year. Even when things got real halfway through and it became apparent that the Gophers should actually be taken seriously, there was still the whole feeling that we were playing with house money.
That’s why I wasn’t super bummed come Selection Sunday when Minnesota did not make the cut. Yes, it sucked, but for a team this young (at all levels), getting to play what ended up being five extra games against some solid teams was much more valuable than playing a single game in Dayton, Ohio and potentially going home. Much like a couple years ago, it was an invaluable learning experience and great way to continue to get the team to jell.
Of course, everyone wants to get to the Big Dance, and it’s a bummer to fall just short. But as we look back on the season as a whole, I’d say the pros of winning the NIT outweigh the cons of falling just short of being the last team in.
But after everything was said and done, how did it shake out?
GOOD: Whatever we expected, the Gophers certainly exceeded it
Many pundits before the season picked the Gophers to finish near or at the bottom of the Big Ten. And after a run of relative success and 20-win seasons, that was hard to accept. Whether or not you thought they would finish 7th, 8th, 9th or 12th didn’t really matter, it was clear that this team wasn’t going to contend for a conference title. With a brand new, relatively inexperienced coach and a patchwork roster headlined by several mid-major misfits, there wasn’t anything to be particularly excited about except growth and experience.
Success, instead, was proving the doubters wrong. Success was being good enough to be part of the bubble conversation by season’s end. Success was showing that the coaching staff was capable of coaching up a team and getting the most out of its players. It was low-hanging fruit, but with a gutted lineup and new people in charge, it was realistic.
But the Gophers didn’t just stop there. They took their postseason life and ran with it, using it as a growth opportunity, extra practice and a final sendoff for the seniors. In fact, they parlayed it into an NIT championship, which is a greater achievement than most people give credit for.
Whether or not the merits of an NIT championship are legitimate or not is mostly beside the point anyways. At the end of the day, the Gophers took what was supposed to be a lemon of a season and made some decent lemonade. They pulled some upsets, looked great at home, developed Mo Walker and Dre Mathieu and showed that Richard Pitino might actually know what he’s doing. Before the season we didn’t really know what to expect and, honestly, didn’t think much was possible. But after cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden, just missing out on the Big Dance and largely being taken seriously in the conference, I certainly couch this year as a step in the right direction.
BAD: Holy Eliason regression, Batman
I tried to dig up a tweet I had during Elliott Eliason’s early conference season run about how he looked like Superman and was potentially one of the best centers in the conference, but I couldn’t find it. It’s probably for the best, because soon after Eliason’s double-double in a win over Ohio State on Jan. 16, he wouldn’t score in double figures or grab double digit rebounds for the rest of the season – a span of 20 games. And after playing at least 25 minutes in 13 of the first 18 games of the season, he would only see that much court time twice the rest of the way. How does a guy go from looking like one of the best bigs in the conference to basically becoming an afterthought of a bench player?
It’s a sad, curious case, but one that was clearly evident as the season wore on. Part of it was the emergence of Mo Walker, but his emergence was largely due to Eliason’s ineffectiveness, at least initially. It was mostly the fault of Eliason himself. He fell into bad habits that he should have shook early in the season, most of which came from being over-aggressive and committing bad fouls. Often he would find himself on the bench early in games with two fouls while we watched Mo Walker mature right before our eyes. He stopped getting his shots to fall, looking lost on offense and never consistently getting to the basket. And, while he was definitely effective on defense, he wasn’t nearly the imposing figure he was in the first half of the year. Outside of a seven block showcase in the NIT, he only had two games in the latter half of the season with more than two blocks.
His junior year was supposed to be a season of tremendous growth, and it certainly looked like he was on the path to maturing early in the season. Instead, after a season’s worth of games under his belt, it looks like he has some additional growth to do before he reaches the potential he’s flashed.
INTERESTING: Gophers already showing national momentum in 2014-15
April is a month of “far too early” predictions from most people and a fun time to use short-term memory to predict what might happen next year. And if a couple publications are any indication, the Gophers are on the path to being taken seriously by the national media as early as next season.
Consider that the USA Today released its initial Top 25 poll for the next year, with the Gophers listed at No. 25. And Joe Lunardi’s first Bracketology has Minnesota as an 8-seed heading into the offseason. That’s no joke for a team that was barely thought to have a pulse prior to this season. And, at the very least, it shows that, as a fan base, we’re not suffering from over-hyping what happened this season – people with a pulse on the national scene also think the Gophers are on to something.
An NIT championship definitely helps, but it’s also a product of showing growth throughout the season. Heading into 2014-15 the Gophers will only lose one impact player, Austin Hollins, while bringing back nearly their entire starting lineup, with recruits to boot. The trend is upward, and others are stopping to take note.
Tag(s): Gopher Basketball