Michigan Basketball 2011
Michigan Wolverines @ Minnesota Golden Gophers Basketball Recap
Michigan 70, Minnesota 63
It’s a very difficult time to be a Minnesota fan for reasons that go beyond the loss of one basketball game. Nevertheless, Saturday’s setback on home hardwood against the Michigan Wolverines was very much a stomach punch for Golden Gopher partisans. A loss that dropped Minnesota to 6-10 in the Big Ten – and likely out of the running for an NCAA Tournament berth – could be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back. This could be the result that makes Minnesota something of a black hole in the realm of Big Ten basketball. In order to understand this, an explanation is necessary.
It’s disillusioning enough that Minnesota lost its second straight game after gaining a lead heading into the final few minutes. On Tuesday, Minnesota lost at home to Michigan State after owning a 47-40 edge with 4:15 left. The Gophers got outscored 13-1 down the stretch and absorbed a bitter 53-48 defeat. That loss put them on the outer edge of the NCAA bubble, but this loss will only make Minnesotans more miserable. The Gophers led Michigan 62-59 with 3:07 remaining and then got outscored 11-1 the rest of the way. A chronic inability to finish games has placed Minnesota firmly in the NIT, a terrible result for a team that expected so much more when its season took root in November of 2010.
This is where the backstory of Gopher basketball emerges in full relief.
At the end of November, Minnesota polished off North Carolina and West Virginia to win the Puerto Rice Tip-Off tournament and soar into the top 25. Minnesota certainly seemed to have a balanced team, the kind of unit that could make a run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers still lacked the dynamic post play that would enable them to get to the Final Four, but they appeared to be much better than a series of teams that barely got into the Big Dance (in 2009 and 2010) but failed to escape the first round.
Then, the world collapsed on respected coach Tubby Smith, the national champion at Kentucky who left UK for Minnesota before the 2007-2008 season. Tubby felt he was escaping a madhouse in Kentucky for a more mellow destination in Minneapolis, and after two NCAA Tournament appearances in his first three seasons, the Gopher coach was well on his way to creating a successful new stage in a decorated career.
That upward trajectory came to an abrupt halt right after the Puerto Rico championship. Guard Al Nolen got knocked out for the season with an injury. Nolen’s backcourt mate, Devoe Joseph, left the team and transferred to Oregon, leaving the Gophers without a backcourt. All this didn’t even include the soap opera involving highly-prized recruit Royce White, a major prospect who was (ironically enough) supposed to make Minnesota a Final Four club but ran into trouble with the law. White was charged with shoplifting in the fall of 2009, and he transferred to Iowa State in the summer, before the 2010-’11 season began. Smith recruited the pieces needed to create an upper-tier program, but the combination of injuries, incidents and defections left him empty-handed. These late-game collapses against Michigan State and now Michigan (coached by John Beilein) probably wouldn’t have occurred if the Gophers had their full November roster on hand.
Now, as a result of one frustration after another, Smith is rumored to be the next coaching candidate at Georgia Tech and North Carolina State. If Smith does leave, Minnesota could be seen as a bad destination for college basketball coaches. This is not what the school wanted after the scandal-plagued reign of disgraced coach Clem Haskins and the utterly fruitless tenure of former boss Dan Monson.
It’s a cold winter in Minnesota… especially in a misery-filled Barn named Williams Arena.
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