Minnesota Golden Gopher Basketball: What Went Wrong?
It is hard to believe that at one point this season the Gophers won the Puerto Rico Tip-off Tournament, were ranked 15th in the nation and were looking at a role in the Big Ten title race and a high seed in the NCAA tournament.
Fast forward to March 10th, the day the ninth seeded Gophers lose by 77-67 to the Northwestern Wildcats in the first round of the Big Ten tournament and it is clear that something significant happened along the way. This unimpressive loss capped a dismal finish to a once promising season in which the Gophers lost ten of their last eleven games.
What went wrong?
In this case, there is not one single factor that caused this meltdown. In fact, there are five distinct reasons that that led to the waste of one of the best starts in Golden basketball history.
Loss of Guards Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph
From the second that Al Nolen went down with a foot injury, the Gophers just never looked the same. To make matters worse, guard Devoe Joseph transferred mid-season to Oregon following a suspension to open the season. This left the gophers without their best ball-handler and defender in Nolen and without one of their best shooters and play-makers in Joseph. This meant that Tubby Smith and the gophers had to rely on Blake Hoffarber, who is primarily a spot-shooter, and a slew of freshmen guards with no prior experience at the Big Ten level to play both guard positions.
Inability of Blake Hoffarber to Get Open Shots
This is essentially an extension of the first point, but it was one of the main issues that plagued the Gophers down the stretch. In the Gophers’ win early in the season against North Carolina, Hoffarber was a huge factor while scoring 20 points off of 5-14 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc. This type of success was seen again later in the season, such as in his 26 point effort in the team’s victory against Purdue, but these games were too few and far between. The problem was that Hoffarber had to assume the point-guard roles for most of the second-half of the season and is not a strong enough dribbler to create his own shot at the point. Likewise, when Tubby Smith started freshman Maverick Ahanmisi at point guard, there was not enough offensive firepower from the rest of the perimeter to keep defenses off of Hoffarber.
Lack of Veteran Improvement
One of the true disappointments of the season was the lack of improvement of Colton Iverson and Rodney Williams. Colton Iverson’s 5.4 points per game is the same total as his freshman season, and at 5 rebounds a game, he did not display the effectiveness that Tubby Smith had hoped for when recruiting him out of Yankton, South Dakota. Rodney Williams, while improving his stats from his freshman season and providing numerous highlight reel dunks, still did not display the quality of play that warranted him l NBA lottery draft pick status by many experts at the beginning of the season. While both players were effective role players for the Gophers, they did not develop into the types of playmakers needed in order for the Gophers to make a strong push in the Big Ten.
Lack of Star Freshmen
While the Gophers’ crew of freshman guards (and Mo Walker before his injury) played well and developed throughout the season, the team simply lacked a stud guard that could have helped after the loss of both Nolen and Joseph. This is a lingering effect from the Gophers losing out to Texas in the recruiting battle for point guard Cory Joseph. Looking around the Big Ten at a team like Michigan and Tim Hardaway Jr., the Gophers could have used such an impact player to come in and lift the team to the upper echelon of the Big Ten. Instead, they had to rely too much on Hoffarber near the end of games and became predictable in scoring situations.
What was strength for the Gophers the past couple of years is now being looked on by fans and critics alike as a possible weakness. While the majority of fans have a great amount of respect for Tubby Smith and his history as a college basketball coach, many games this season ended with frustration as the Gophers came out of a timeout and appeared as if they did not really have a plan. The enthusiasm and energy of this team also seemed to be lacking compared to years in the past. Yes, the team had many setbacks and lost a few very important players. However, Michigan State also faced many setbacks this year and yet Tom Izzo found a way to keep his players fighting down the stretch. In college basketball, coaches are usually the center of either the spotlight or the hot seat. In this case, Tubby Smith may be edging himself further away from the once undying loyalty of Gopher fans.