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Gopher Basketball Collapse Historic

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February 25, 2018


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Coach Richard Pitino’s University of Minnesota basketball team is headed to perhaps the most disappointing ending to a basketball or football season in school history. After being in preseason discussions for a Big Ten basketball title, the Golden Gophers have seen their dream season collapse since an early January suspension of center Reggie Lynch and the injury to forward Amir Coffey that has sidelined him for most of the conference season.

Minnesota is 2-12 since Lynch, the Big Ten’s best shot blocker, was told by the University he violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy. Coffey, another potential all-conference player prior to the season, has missed 12 of the last 14 games going into today’s Big Ten regular season finale at Purdue.

It will be an upset for the ages if Minnesota defeats national power Purdue. At best the Gophers might pick up a single win in the Big Ten Tournament later this week. A scenario with one more win before putting 2017-2018 to rest would leave the Gophers with a 16-17 final overall record including 4-14 in regular season league games. Those totals would be the third worst in more than 10 years with the 2016 team having records of 8-22 and 2-16, and the 2007 team with totals of 9-22 and 3-13.

Coffey photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications

It’s been a deflating couple of months for Gophers fans, most of whom realized last year how potentially special the 2017-2018 team appeared to be. Minnesota got off to a 7-0 nonconference start and was ranked as high as No. 12 in the nation during the early success. Although it was clear from the beginning Pitino’s bench players were subpar, the starting five of Lynch, Coffey, Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy was potentially the program’s best since the 1997 team that went to the Final Four.

In the high profile sports of basketball and football, it’s been awhile since a Gopher season filled with such hope came crashing down like the stock market on a horrific February day. Tubby Smith’s 2010-2011 team started 16-4 and was ranked No. 16 when things fell apart. Starting point guard Al Nolen broke his foot in late December and shortly after Devoe Joseph, his replacement, left the program. Minnesota lost 10 of its last 11 games including one in the Big Ten Tournament. Hopes of a high finish in the Big Ten and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament were gone with a final overall record of 17-14 and league total of 6-12.

A Gopher historian researched back to 1957 to find a disappointing season similar to this year. Minnesota was coming off a near Rose Bowl invitation in 1956 when national media ranked the football Gophers among the powerhouse teams in America. Minnesota even had a magazine cover boy quarterback in Bobby Cox, a possible All-American and Heisman Trophy winner.

Minnesota, ranked as high as third in the country, started the season 3-0. Included in the wins were 46-7 and 41-6 victories over Washington and Northwestern. The state “smelled” Big Ten title and the program’s first Rose Bowl trip. From Austin to Warroad, fans were locked into the Golden Gophers on football Saturdays. They listened to games on radios at home, in backyards and even duck blinds. Fans cheered at Memorial Stadium including a crowd of more than 64,000 that watched Minnesota’s opening conference win over Purdue.

Then on October 19, 1957 in Champaign-Urbana, the collapse began. Minnesota, ranked No. 4 in the nation, not only reportedly had injuries and illness going into that game but faced a fast and inspired Illinois team that received a pep talk from Illini legend Red Grange, The Galloping Ghost. The final score of the nationally televised game wasn’t even close, with the Illini winning 34-13.

The Gophers won one of their last six games, finishing the season 4-5 overall and 3-5 in the league. Rumors swirled about team dissension and injuries. There was no doubting the team’s lack of team speed got exposed by opponents. Whatever, and however, the season collapse was a classic tailspin that old-timers still remember.

Coach Murray Warmath struggled the next two seasons, with a combined record of 3-15, and he almost was fired in the process. In 1960 he recovered in dramatic fashion winning Big Ten and national titles.

Pitino will need a bounce back season in 2018-2019 to quiet critics. If the Gophers finish with overall 16-17 and 4-14 Big Ten records this winter, that will bring his five seasons totals to 91-78 and 31-59. After five seasons, Dan Monson—picking up the pieces and limitations imposed by the coach Clem Haskins scandal—had records of 79-55 and 29-51. After five years as Minnesota coach Smith’s total were 103-68 and 38-52. In 10 fewer conference games Monson had almost as many wins at the five-year mark as Pitino. Smith won nine more games.

Pitino’s history at Minnesota includes player suspensions and transfers that has slowed progress. Players with issues include Lynch, Mason, McBrayer and long departed Kevin Dorsey, Daquein McNeil and Carlos Morris who all made early exits from the program. A major future off court player incident—whether alleged or not—will turn up the heat on Pitino from school administrators and the public.

Next season the Gophers will likely return three starters with current underclassmen forwards Coffey and Murphy, and McBrayer, a junior guard who has played through injury this year. Part-time point guard Isaiah Washington, a regular off the bench, will likely be another quality starter as might forward Eric Curry who missed his entire sophomore season after September knee surgery. With senior centers Lynch, Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou using up their eligibility, Minnesota will welcome new front court size from Louisville transfer Matz Stockman and incoming freshmen Jarvis Omersa and Daniel Oturu.

Without Lynch and Coffey this winter, and Konate and Gaston frequently ineffective, Pitino has often used a smaller lineup, but interior defense and rebounding have mostly been inadequate. The Gophers, who frequently haven’t defended well on the perimeter either, have given up 80 points or more eight times since Lynch was suspended.

Maybe next season will be as much of a surprise as this one has been disappointing. The program standards are low. The 1997 Final Four and Big Ten championship season was vacated because of academic fraud. Since 2000 the Gophers have only three times finished with a winning record in regular season Big Ten games.

Last off-season the Athletic Department sold a few thousand more season tickets than for 2016-2017. Prior to January 1 of this year there were two nonconference sellouts, and there was the likelihood of several more during the Big Ten home schedule in January and February. The fan base was coming back to Williams Arena, with the promise of making the old place loud and fun again.

There’s no doubt ticket buyers will pack the arena if they are ever treated to a consistent winner, a top 25 program that contends for Big Ten titles. For right now, though, there is a hurt in Dinkytown that perhaps hasn’t been this painful since ’57.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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