There’s been quite a bit of buzz in Minneapolis this spring.
First Tubby Smith was fired, a move that was criticized by some, but largely supported across a fan base that had very loudly become dissatisfied with the former coach’s six years of mediocrity in the Big Ten (and had stuffed my inbox with thoughts of that nature). Then, after an anxiety-inducing coaching search, along came Richard Pitino, who has made himself quickly popular with the masses with his smooth talk and promises of bringing an exciting style to the often slow-paced Gophers. Three recruits have already signed. By all accounts, it’s been more of an exciting spring than usual for Gophers basketball, which is usually pret-tay slow this time of year.
So it’s not surprising, then, that it seems as though optimism abounds. With a new coach, a new system and a handful of new players (and untapped players from a year ago), why couldn’t Minnesota make a big leap right away?
Well, just hold onto your “Big Ten champion” screen prints and blank T-shirts. Despite all the positive developments, there are other major hints that next year might not be all glory and Ws. Though the Big Ten as a whole is losing a lot of stars, for the most part, the top still looks incredibly strong, as I wrote recently. Other teams -- such as Illinois, which has the 17th ranked freshman class in the nation and Purdue, whose freshman class lands at No. 23, nationwide – will improve around the Gophers. Meanwhile, Minnesota itself is dealing with a very thin frontcourt and a sudden scoring deficit after the losses of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams.
I don’t want to be the Negative Nancy here (I also heard Rayno-on-my-parade and Rayno Ruiner last season, if you’d like to give either of those a spin), but it’s important not to forget that though the Gophers might have a better foundation to build on for the future, the now could still be a little shaky. Pitino can be a good coach and still have a losing record in the Big Ten next year.
So is it a rebuilding year? That seems to be the popular thought. The Gophers are not on the cusp of any of the super early Top 25 rankings coming out, and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi didn’t even put them in with the seven Big Ten teams that made his ridiculously early preseason NCAA tournament bracket. Big Ten Network’s Brent Yarina actually put the Gophers DEAD LAST in his power rankings for next year, if you can believe it (Yes, even Rayno Ruiner thinks that’s a little harsh). Both national experts I recently spoke with – CBS Sports’ Jeff Borzello and NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster – concur that the Gophers will land safely in the bottom half of the league.
Alls I’m saying is that too high of expectations lead to a much more dramatic “thump” than do realistic ones.
Could the Gophers surprise? Certainly. They still have a solid backcourt, rooted by the promising Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins. And who knows what Pitino will be able to get out of other current players with a new approach. Minnesota still has the chance to sign a big man or two, and improve the depth of the forward corps.
I do think that the firing/search/hiring/signings put the Gophers in a better position for eventual growth. But things – in the Big Ten, certainly – don’t happen overnight. If the Gophers do turn some heads, one should sufficiently understand (and appreciate) that reality for the surprise that it would be.