The Minnesota men's basketball program is in the midst of a full meltdown after the latest scandal to erupt in the Twin Cities, adding more dark clouds to an already stormy season. If you don't think an upset of Wisconsin on Wednesday night would make the Golden Gophers' season, you're dead wrong.
Nearly a polar opposite, Wisconsin (19-10, 11-5 Big Ten) has won 10 of its last 11 contests and is being recognized as one of the best college basketball stories of the year. With a win over Minnesota (8-20, 2-14), the Badgers can notch a 20th victory for the 10th consecutive season after a precarious 9-9 start. Talk about two teams headed in opposite directions ...
It has been a total group effort from Wisconsin, despite a number of new faces this season. Likewise, the Gophers are down to six scholarship players at this point, so you'll see a lot of new faces on their side too. To get us up to speed we talked to Steve Bailey, the former editor of From The Barn who now writes for The Daily Gopher.
B5Q: A day after Richard Pitino said he anticipated Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer and Kevin Dorsey would be back against Wisconsin, Minnesota has suspended each player for the remainder of the season. Based on the nature of the rumors I don't expect any clear-cut details will be provided to the public. Based on what you know, was this the right move? Did Pitino's earlier statement put him in a bad position or at odds with the university in this situation?
The Daily Gopher (Steve): This is a tough one since so little is known about the videos, the players, the consent given, etc. The only "facts" are that a video was posted via Dorsey’s Twitter account and removed, and that he was identified in it. And then he, McBrayer and Mason were suspended. That’s about it. It’s impossible to know at this point what the University is privy to, but given the sensitive material and potential implications for the players, I don’t disagree with sitting them for the rest of the season. It actually protects them a little bit while details continue to surface and the story sorts itself out.
Pitino’s statement about believing they’d be available for the game is curious since it implies that the story further developed in the time between him making that statement and the players then getting suspended. If nothing else, it’s inconsistent communication to the public from the coaching staff and the University itself. It just looks sloppy.
B5Q: Quick guards can hurt Wisconsin with dribble penetration, but now Minnesota is without its top four perimeter players (including the dismissal of Carlos Morris in mid-February). Evaluate the guard situation going forward. What are the odds the reserves give the Gophers a historic "win for Joey King" shooting miracle?
TDG: Guard situation, eh? Well, we’re down to three walk-ons (one of whom was playing in the WIAC two years ago) and no point guards. Two of them have combined for 3 minutes total this season. Stephon Sharp actually scored 19 points against Illinois, which was impressive considering he’d played 40 minutes total all season, but he’s simply out of position at the 1. He had 7 turnovers in the game. So, on a scale of smiley face to frowny face, I’d give the guard situation a barfing face. And not the kind of barfing where you feel a little better afterwards. The kind of barfing you get the morning after a night of drinking rail tequila where the only antidote is time elapsing, lots of sleep and maybe some tap water every couple hours. (Ed. note: I just barfed a little in my mouth. Thanks.)
Honestly, the only way they might pull this off is a three-point shooting miracle paired with a monster game from Jordan Murphy. As I mentioned, Sharp was on fire in his first career start, and they actually have their top three three-point scorers still on the roster. None of the other two walk-ons have attempted a three this year, so I can’t really speak to their talents there, though one of them is second in all-time three-point percentage in Minnesota high-school history. That’s something, I suppose.
B5Q: Be honest. Would you trade Pitino for Greg Gard right now to lead Minnesota's program into next season?
TDG: In this moment the obvious answer is yes, of course, but I’m saying no only because I have to see how Pitino does next year with this recruiting class coming in. This team has been a mess from day one in the personnel department, but I really need to see if he’s capable of coaching a team with actual talent. It’s like sitting through a bad movie – you gotta see how it ends!
B5Q: In a great year for freshmen big men in the Big Ten, Jordan Murphy has been outstanding. I usually lump him in with the likes of Thomas Bryant, Caleb Swanigan, Diamond Stone and Ethan Happ, so I was surprised to see him listed at only 6'6". Does Murphy get enough attention in your opinion?
TDG: He’s the only talking point on our end when it comes to players who are going above and beyond. On a conference-wide scale I think he could use a little more attention. He’s won B1G freshman of the week a couple times this year already and he’s high up on the overall leaderboard in terms of PPG and RPG. In fact, he’s fourth in the conference in rebounds per game and is the only freshman putting up that type of combination of points and rebounds per game. Minnesota’s struggles are certainly impacting his notoriety this year, which is a bummer.
B5Q: Despite the rocky season, the Gophers have played pretty well at home against some strong teams and I know they will be jacked up for the Wisconsin game as usual. What did you see in the upset win over Maryland two weeks ago that you think bodes well for Minnesota on Wednesday?
TDG: It's so hard to say with any confidence what this team can do now that literally each of their scholarship guards is suspended. Before I would have said that all three of Mason, McBrayer and Dorsey were on the ascent and playing some of their best ball of the year. Now we have to choose which walk-on who hasn’t played more than two minutes in a game is going to have the biggest impact. Whatever team you saw beat Maryland is long gone this year. Literally.
B5Q: What kind of defense will the Gophers roll out against the Badgers? Any zones? Double-teams? It seems like a disciplined team that can pass is able to pick Minnesota apart. How do you stop Nigel Hayes from making plays from the post?
TDG: This team’s defense is terribly inconsistent and fairly undisciplined, but they’ve been particularly bad at allowing shots to go in. They’re letting opponents shoot 45% from the field. Hayes is the type of player who can give them real problems because he matches up against bigger guys and they can’t chase him around the floor. Our forwards aren’t particularly quick, so guys like Hayes are a nightmare when they can spot up because our forwards can’t close out fast enough.
And with the new personnel, it’s about to get even uglier. Illinois ran out to a huge lead in the second half of their game once they figured things out, and shot 74% from the field that half. That’s a real number.
B5Q: True or false: You will watch the Minnesota-Rutgers rematch.
TDG: Oh, 100% I will watch it. In fact, this could be the most captivating game of the season. On one hand, you’ve got a team decimated by suspensions, a veritable ‘Hoosiers’, whose walk-ons just want to taste the sweet nectar of victory in pretty much the only chance they’ll ever have to be largely responsible for a win. On the other hand, you’ve got a squad just trying to not be a historical footnote. That one win for Rutgers means so much to them, it wouldn’t matter that it came against a team who probably has players that shoot free throws underhanded. I’d tune in. This should be on ESPN.
B5Q: Sorry for another coaching question, but what's the general mood around town regarding what Tubby Smith is doing down at Texas Tech? Do you see the Tubby era in the same light now as you did at the time he was let go?
TDG: It’s easy to look at where the Gophers are and where Tubby is at TTU and say, "what have we done?" But the reason we walked away from Tubby is because he never showed the ability to get over that hump of always being on the bubble. He’ll beat a couple ranked teams, get you excited, and then go in the tank before pulling you back and either narrowly making or narrowly missing the tournament. For better or worse, we wanted to move beyond that, and rolled the dice on Pitino.
Sure, Texas Tech will probably make the tournament this year as a 10 seed or something, and that’s the status quo for Tubby. The 19 wins per year were nice, but he’s up to the same old games in Lubbock and I don’t think there’s a yearning for his return. I give him all the credit in the world for bringing a semblance of good fortune to our program, but he’d stalled by the time he was let go.
I'm sure it wasn't fun, but Steve took his therapy like a man. We thank him heartily, just because saluting a Gopher fan is not allowed. You can find Steve on Twitter @zipsofakron, but he's also a permanent part of the @TheDailyGopher crew as well.
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