The Gophers were 3-2 after five games of the 2013-14 Big Ten schedule. They lost at home to Michigan, the eventual Big Ten champion, and at Michigan State. They defeated Purdue and Ohio State at Williams Arena and won at Penn State.
The top seven players on that team included two seniors: Austin Hollins and transfer Malik Smith.
The Gophers wound up playing 38 games, with the added five on the way to winning the NIT. Overall, this was a promising start to coach Richard Pitino’s stay at Minnesota.
One thing we’ve heard over the past dozen years in college basketball is the value of an experienced roster, what with top players leaving early for the NBA, and with players unhappy over minutes and/or shot attempts transferring willy-nilly.
Why do Jay Bilas and the rest of the national analysts tell us that mid-major teams and even those from conferences below that are more dangerous to the mighty in the NCAA tournament than previously?
Because those underfinanced underdogs have seniors and fourth-year juniors, while the top teams from the power conferences are losing elite players early to the pros, and discontented players to lower-tier programs.
On Tuesday night, I was watching ESPN after Kentucky edged Missouri 86-37, and coach John Calipari was being interviewed. This blowout came after two games in which the No. 1-rated Wildcats were pushed to overtime, and Calipari explained those speed bumps with this claim:
There are 351 schools playing Division I basketball and Kentucky has the fifth-youngest roster.
So even a guy who has two platoons of high school All-Americas, and a guy who won a national title basically with all freshmen, is throwing bouquets to the wonders of experience.
And experience was a reason to anticipate that Pitino’s second season was likely to finish on the plus side of .500 in the Big Ten — thus trading in our beloved rodents’ long tradition of NIT brilliance for a shot in the NCAA’s field of 68.
The Gophers’ top seven consists of fifth-year seniors Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason, fourth-year seniors Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu, juniors Joey King and Carlos Morris (a juco transfer) and freshman Nate Mason.
Hollins came into this season with 107 games played, Eliason with 108, Walker with 74, Mathieu with 101, King with 69, and Morris with 59 at the post-high school level.
The other player to appear in Tuesday night’s 77-75 loss to Iowa was Charles Buggs, a third-year sophomore.
You’re not going to find a bunch of teams in the major conferences with more experience at the top of the roster.
Pitino did lose some depth, in the following manner:
Sophomore Daquien McNeil was arrested on a domestic abuse charge that included some very ugly details. Freshman Josh Martin, a ballyhooed recruit, became quickly disillusioned and left the team before the end of his first semester.
You can’t offer too many alibis for a coach about “lack of depth,’’ when those are the circumstances that caused it.
Pitino does keep threatening to use Gaston Diedhou, a 6-9, newly eligible 21-year-old freshman from Senegal, but that has not yet occurred.
Whatever, with this much experience and with Mason providing pizazz as a freshman, there’s no excuse for this:
An 0-5 start to the Big Ten, one more loss than Tubby Smith’s worst start in six seasons here, and the worst since the failed Dan Monson’s 0-6 to start the Big Ten in 2005-06.
The Gophers made six of 11 threes and shot 62.1 percent overall in the second half Tuesday, charged back from 17 points down to a four-point lead and still managed to lose to the Hawkeyes.
Pitino said at his postgame media session that there were players “crying and bawling” in the locker room after the loss. This apparently was intended to emphasize how much this group of Gophers cares about winning.
I don’t know about this. Throwing a sneaker, slamming a door, cussin’ a bit … go for it, but bawling and crying? How about balling and playing defense?
I added this season’s 18 games to the totals and the top seven (Mason included) has an average of 90 college or junior college games played. Cryin’ time should be long over by now.
Look at the next half-dozen games. Pretty easy pickin’s if these Gopher graybeards trade in tears for hard-edged resolve.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org