This year’s Gophers men’s basketball team got what it deserved on Selection Sunday, falling just short of an NCAA bid in a season where it fell just short in a lot of critical games. One more victory — overtime at Michigan State, triple overtime at Purdue, home against Northwestern, home against Illinois, Wisconsin in the conference tournament — might have done it.
Ultimately, it matters but doesn’t really matter. This was not a team destined to make a run even if it would have sneaked into the tournament. The mission with first-year head coach Richard Pitino is bigger than one season.
His mission is this: Get this program into a position where it is not on the NCAA bubble year after year.
That’s where the Gophers have resided, at their best, in virtually every season since the Final Four trip of 1997. Look back at the history:
• The year the academic fraud scandal broke, 1999, the Gophers were 17-11 overall and 6-10 in the Big Ten but still made the NCAA field.
• Dan Monson’s squads had bubbles burst in 2002 and 2003, winding up in the NIT. They had a little breathing room in Monson’s only NCAA season of 2005, but still that was a one-and-done trip as a No. 8 seed.
• Tubby Smith’s three NCAA tournament teams were all double-digit seeds and had to sweat more on Sunday than Adrian Peterson.
That’s it. The sum total, since that magical Final Four season of 17 (!) years ago, is eight NIT appearances (including this year), five NCAA berths and exactly one NCAA tournament victory. In some of those years, the Gophers started fast and faded. In other years, they were consistently decent. In a few seasons, they were flat-out awful, but those have been rare.
This season seemed to have NIT stamped on it before the opening tip. The Gophers were remaking on the fly with a young head coach and a slapdash recruiting class while big questions about their interior play loomed. The fact that they were perhaps a victory away from the NCAA tourney is a good sign for the future.
In the end, though, it was the quintessential post-Final Four Gophers season: some big wins, some crushing losses and a decision left in the hands of the selection committee.
That is how middle-of-the-pack programs function, and it is no way to live. We long for a day when the only question on Selection Sunday is what high seed the Gophers are getting. That’s when you will know a new era has arrived.