Every college basketball team has periods during their season in which things don’t go as planned. The Minnesota Gophers had their share this season and then a few a more.
Minnesota began the season among the top 25 teams in the country in most preseason polls. The early optimism and ranking appeared warranted as the team had won 22 games the previous season and they returned seven players averaging at least 15 minutes of playing time from the prior season.
If there was a knock on the team it was that they did not have an athletic wing player. No problem, coach Tubby Smith had recruited two super frosh in Royce White and Rodney Williams. Both players were considered by some experts as among the top 25 freshmen in the country.
The first case of heartburn occurred before the start of the season when senior Devon Bostick was suspended from the team for violating team rules and Royce White pled guilty to disorderly conduct and theft in connection to a shoplifting incident. Police accused White of shoplifting $100 worth of merchandise and pushed a security guard, who attempted to intervene, twice to the ground.
No problem, Coach Smith told the remaining troops that they would march on. The message appeared to sink in as the Gophers stormed out to a 4-0 record with an opening round win over No. 10 Butler at the Anaheim Classic.
The Gophers would then experience more queasiness as they would drop their next three games. Losing a couple of games during a season is bound to occur for most teams. However, playing flat without emotion and having junior starting point guard Al Nolen and senior starting guard Lawrence Westbrook lose a start for violating team rules was unexpected and proved to be bad omens for the season.
The Gophers came back home and finished off their non-conference schedule with a flourish. Junior Blake Hoffarber discovered his long range stroke and broke the single game record, against Northern Illinois, for three-point shots made in a game with eight.
Then more indigestion was in store for Gopher fans.
White was identified as a suspect in the theft of a computer laptop. Ultimately, White pled guilty to one count of misdemeanor trespass and was put on probation, fined $100 and sentenced to 50 hours of community service.
White, I’m sure against the advice of his lawyer, posted a pseudo music YouTube video in which he announced his innocence and that he was leaving Minnesota and the basketball program to pursue other interests. White was clear in his video, however, that he respected and thought the world of Coach Smith. White would subsequently stop going to class in the spring.
Coach Smith asked the band to play the Minnesota Rouser a little louder and the Gophers responded by winning their first couple of games of Big Ten conference play.
Unfortunately, the music didn’t reach the state of Florida as Trevor Mbwake’s assault charges were continued once again and all hopes to see Mbwake return to the court this season ended as well. Does the right to a speedy trial not exist in Florida? Pass the Tums.
Mbwake’s absence was missed early on in the Big Ten season as the Gophers lost to traditional bruisers Michigan State and Purdue. The Spartans took advantage of the Gophers lack of a true power forward by grabbing 14 offensive rebounds.
Minnesota hoped to get back on track travelling to Indiana. Unfortunately, the Indiana game would bring bad news for the Gopher faithful as the Hoosiers won 81-78 in overtime.
Starting point guard Al Nolen played as if he were in a daze shooting 0-for-4 from the field and 5-of-8 from the free throw line. Upon the team’s arrival back to the Twin Cities, all would become clear as to why Nolen played so poorly in Bloomington.
Nolen had been declared academically ineligible. Nolen and the University had appealed his suspension, and upon getting back to Minnesota the NCAA informed all interested parties that Nolen’s appeal had been denied.
If Gophers weren’t sick already, they were about to become ill. Without their starting point guard and best perimeter defensive player, the Gophers lost their way and struggled.
The 83-55 debacle at Michigan in the second to last game of the regular season was the worst beat down the Gophers have suffered under Coach Smith. Minnesota was outplayed in every phase of the game; most importantly the players appeared to play with no energy and passion.
Coach Smith became so disgusted with his starters that he pulled all of them out of the game to play five reserves including walk-on football player Bryant Allen.
After the Michigan game, Minnesota appeared to have no chance of making the NCAA tournament. Most Minnesota fans believed that all they could hope for as far as postseason action was a possible road game in the National Invitational Tournament.
Despite that, the Gophers rallied at the end to thrash Iowa 88-53 in the season finale. Minnesota then arguably played its best three consecutive games of the season in the Big Ten tournament in beating Penn State, Michigan State, and Purdue.
The Gophers played Ohio State tough in the first half of the championship game of the Big Ten tournament but simply ran out of gas playing their fourth consecutive game on successive days. Minnesota’s performance in Indianapolis was enough for the Gophers to secure a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Minnesota drew Xavier for its first-round game in Milwaukee. Which Gopher team would show up—the team that crushed Purdue or the team that ran out of gas against Ohio State?
Unfortunately, the tank was on empty as the Gophers lost to Xavier 65-54 in a less than inspired effort against the Musketeers.
Minnesota had talent on their roster to achieve more than what they accomplished. This team should have won 25 games and have finished among the top five teams in the conference.
What was troubling watching the Gophers was that their injuries were self-inflicted by their conduct off the court or by failing to go to class. The self-inflicted injuries always hurt the most.
The Gophers will be back next year. Hopefully, Minnesota fans will have less heartburn in the 2010-2011 basketball season.