The Minnesota Golden Gophers are in search of progress this season, but that might be more difficult to achieve than many fans want to believe.
Generally, fanbases are accepting of the fact that the vast majority of teams can’t realistically contend for a championship every year. With the constant roster turnover, coaching moves, and varying degree of difficult in opponents, it makes sense. Even the best programs are going to have “down” years. It’s just a matter of maximizing the good and minimizing the bad.
For Minnesota, fans are hopeful that this year can be one of those good years, but unfortunately, the roster may hint at something else.
Since head coach Richard Pitino arrived in Minneapolis, there has been an awkward mix of success. Pitino’s teams certainly haven’t been terrible. During his two year tenure, Minnesota has been consistently competitive and pulled off at least a few big wins. However, a 14-22 conference record with no NCAA Tournament appearances over two years has left many around the program frustrated.
What’s even more frustrating is that before firing Tubby Smith in 2013, Smith’s final Minnesota team made the NCAA Tournament. The program’s extension of Pitino’s contract last summer shows that Minnesota wants to be patient, but rationalizing his status with the program gets tougher with each season that lacks an NCAA Tournament appearance.
All told, showing some signs of success this year will be crucial for Pitino.
Video: It’s time to start getting to know the new guys, so check out the Gophers’ channel on YouTube for full previews of incoming players.
The issue with showing that success is that Minnesota’s roster has seen pretty significant departures over the last year. Key contributors Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, and Maurice Walker are all out the door and potential depth options in Elliot Eliason, Josh Martin, and Daquen McNeil have also departed for varying reasons since the start of last season.
Of course, Minnesota does have some returning talent and newcomers to help offset these losses. Last year’s breakout contributor Nate Mason returns in the backcourt, Joey King and Carlos Morris will be back on the wing, and the Gophers are adding a top 50 class nationally according to 247Sports.
But is that enough for Minnesota to be successful?
There is certainly a scenario where the Gophers surprise fans this season and lead a remarkable run in the Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament. If Nate Mason becomes a star, King and Morris improve, and young big men like Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate step up, the lineup could be a pretty good.
Realistically though, it’s tough to see that perfect scenario unfolding. Mason and incoming four-star prospect Kevin Dorsey could put together a solid backcourt, but it’s difficult to see players like King and Morris taking big steps forward this year given that they will be developed seniors this year. Along with that, Diedhiou and Konate are complete unknowns as neither played significantly last year.
The other issue is that due to the departures of players like Eliason, Martin, and McNeil, there is very little depth for Minnesota this season. Even if Minnesota’s lineup can surprise, this will be a very thin team relying largely on three-star prospects to play backup minutes.
Needless to say, there isn’t a lot of room for error.
Along with the lineup and bench concerns, this also wasn’t a great Minnesota team last year. The Gophers are likely going to need things to go right to even get back to where the team was last season. After all, Minnesota is losing three players who finished in the top six on the team in minutes last season. Hoping for improvement on top of that is even more demanding.
Gopher fans may be looking for an upward trend this season, but the substantial departures have the potential to turn this into a transitional year for Minnesota. Pitino could be set to have a really talented roster for the 2016-17 season, but until then, fans will have to hope that several newcomers can hit the ground running for Minnesota this year.