Before the season, I predicted this year’s Gophers would take their lumps. They’d struggle, I thought, amid so much turnover and youth. Instead of tumbling, though, Minnesota has crashed. It’s been worse than most — even coach Richard Pitino himself — imagined. It’s been the kind of year that sends reporters scurrying through the annals of the media guide after every game, wondering which “worst” the team topped this time.
So as the Gophers get buried under an avalanche of losses, it’s not surprising that many surrounding the program are having a hard time seeing any light at the end of the tunnel. There is no future context to put the massive slump into perspective, only an uninspiring past that makes a passionate fan base less tolerant of — or even willing to believe in the existence of — a rebuilding season that could lead to something better. But look around college basketball, and even the lauded Big Ten, and you’ll find scores of quick turnarounds — cringe-worthy years followed by NCAA tournament runs — that prove not every ugly season is a harbinger of more to come.
Here’s a glance:
The collapse: In 2010-11, three years after taking the job, Tom Crean coached a team that went 3-15 in conference play, failing to move the needle after the two miserable seasons that came before.
The surge: The next year, Crean and Co.’s slow recruiting build paid off with freshman Cody Zeller helping to direct the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16.
The collapse: The Huskers’ first season in the Big Ten (2012-13) was a rough one for first-year coach Tim Miles, who watched his team start league play 0-5 and finish 5-13.
The surge: The next season, after getting picked to finish last, Nebraska surprised everyone and charged to fourth in the league and its first NCAA tournament bid in 16 years.
The collapse: Growth was hard to find in Chris Collins’ second season last year, especially after the Wildcats lost 10 straight, sitting at 1-10 in league play on Feb. 10.
The surge: Northwestern perked up to seize five of its last seven regular-season games last year, and now the Wildcats have already matched their win total (15) from last season.
The collapse: A guy named John Beilein from West Virginia took the job just before the 2007-08 season but managed just nine regular-season victories and a school-record 22 losses in his first season at Big Blue.
The surge: The next fall, the Wolverines were beating the likes of top-five UCLA and Duke and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, Michigan’s first appearance since 1998.
The collapse: Matt Painter took over a struggling squad in 2005-06 and managed just nine victories his first season while going 3-13 in the Big Ten.
The surge: Painter signed the league’s top recruiting class for the next season — including three eventual All-Americas — and the Boilermakers got to the second round of the Big Dance, setting off a six-year stretch of tournament berths, including back-to-back Sweet 16s.
None of this is to say that the Gophers will make the same leaps next season, when the stink of this one is washed away. But with a talented corps of freshmen and sophomores returning, and the best recruiting class Minnesota has had since 2009 and two game-changing transfers joining the ranks, there’s a better chance than not that big improvement will follow.
RAYNO’S THREE POINTERS
WEEKEND GAME TO WATCH
No. 1 Oklahoma at LSU, 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)
Yes, we know we had you tune in to the Sooners last weekend, but hey, Oklahoma is a good team, possibly the best team in college basketball. This matchup isn’t so much about the Sooners this time, though, as it is about two individuals who sit No. 1 and No. 2 in the Wooden Watch. LSU freshman Ben Simmons on the open floor, with OU senior Buddy Hield driving to the hoop and hitting a staggering percentage of shots from beyond the arc. Thank you, Scheduling Gods.
NUMBERS TO KNOW
1960 The last time a team retained its No. 1 spot in the AP poll despite a loss this early in the season, according to ESPN Stats and Info. That is, until Oklahoma stayed put this week.
8 Pac 12 teams currently predicted to land in the NCAA tournament, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. That accounts for 67 percent of the league’s teams, highest percentage in the country.
4 Times this season that former Gophers recruiting target Henry Ellenson has been named Big East Newcomer of the Week for Marquette.
The latest came last week, when he averaged 13.5 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. Ellenson gets another chance to shine against Butler on Saturday.
For all the talk about Marcus Paige the past few years, it might be Brice Johnson who really holds the key for North Carolina. The different methods Roy Williams has used to try to motivate the Tar Heels’ talented big man — mostly screaming at him and benching him — have been well-documented, but now the senior is finding the right intensity level on his own.
Offensively, he’s shockingly more efficient than he was a year ago, and he has made himself into one of the best rebounders in the nation. If Johnson continues his dominance, UNC looks as likely as any team to cut down the nets in Houston.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
Iowa (16-4; 7-1): Loss or not, the Hawkeyes’ résumé says they are still top dog after topping Michigan once and Michigan State and Purdue twice.
Maryland (18-4; 7-2): The Terrapins finally snatched their signature Big Ten win against Iowa in a league game on Thursday that, if nothing else, lived up to its billing.
Michigan State (18-4; 5-4): Do the Spartans have their identity back? Consecutive wins, the first against No. 8 Maryland, indicate a gain.
Wisconsin (12-9; 4-4): Nobody can guard Nigel Hayes, he says, but center Ethan Happ is becoming a problem for Badgers opponents, too.
Indiana (17-4; 7-1): Just when everyone was finally on board, the Hoosiers fell to Wisconsin, but Yogi Ferrell is still playing out of his mind and making 47.3 percent of three-pointers.
Purdue (18-4; 6-3): The Boilermakers were shorthanded against Minnesota, but AJ Hammons was pulling down rebounds with a shoe in his hand.
Michigan (16-5; 6-2): The Wolverines haven’t been overly convincing in their margin of victory against bad teams lately, topping Minnesota, Nebraska and Rutgers by an average of 9.7 points.
Nebraska (12-9; 4-4): The four-game winning streak ended, but once again the Huskers were competitive in a loss to Michigan.
Northwestern (15-7; 3-6): The Wildcats have taken steps but are 0-5 against ranked teams after falling to Michigan State while shooting 20.7 (!) percent.
Ohio State (14-8; 6-3): The Buckeyes have a long way to go, but they’re taking care of the ones they should, posting a 6-0 record against teams lower in the league standings.
Illinois (10-11; 2-6): The Illini finished regulation against Ohio State on a blazing 15-2 run to force overtime but turned the ball over on their last possession of the extra session to lose the opportunity.
Penn State (11-10; 2-6): The Nittany Lions mustered just 46 points at Ohio State, a season low, and scored just .69 points per possession.
Minnesota (6-15; 0-9): The Gophers have lost the past four games by seven points or fewer but have dropped 10 straight for the first time since 1986-87.
Rutgers (6-15; 0-8): Looking for a bright side? The Scarlet Knights’ 11-point loss to Michigan was their closest of the calendar year.