A cluster of Wisconsin fans seated in the second deck at Williams Arena celebrated an outright Big Ten title Thursday night by having a little fun at the expense of their hated rivals.
The group began with a predictable chant in the final minutes of a wire-to-wire 76-63 victory over the Gophers in a game that wasn’t in doubt after the first few minutes.
They were just getting started.
CBI! CBI! That was in reference to the College Basketball Invitational, a worse destination than even the NIT.
And then those dressed in red rubbed salt in the wounds of the home team.
Big Ten champs! Big Ten champs!
The Barn had begun to empty by that point.
One team went home with a conference championship, the other left the Barn knowing that a sweep of the Big Ten tournament is its only hope of reaching the NCAA tournament.
What a letdown this season has been.
Thursday’s loss in itself should not cause angst for Gophers fans. The Badgers are a far superior team. They have more talent, they shoot better, they pass the ball better. They look like a Final Four team.
The Gophers don’t have a player in the same talent zip code as Wisconsin’s two studs, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. There’s no shame in losing to one of the best teams in the country.
The frustration stems from what happened two months ago when the Gophers squandered an opportunity to put themselves in the tournament, or at least in the discussion.
Instead of bubble talk, coach Richard Pitino devoted much of his postgame remarks Thursday expressing his excitement level for the future of his freshmen.
No matter how they try and spin it now, the Gophers expected to be a tournament team. They won the NIT last season and that was a nice start to Pitino’s era, but this team wanted more and was capable of more, especially with a nucleus comprised of four seniors and two juniors in the primary rotation.
That’s why this situation feels like a disappointment. It’s disappointing because they lost their first five conference games to dig a deep hole.
Disappointing because they blew a double-digit lead at Purdue.
Disappointing because they tossed away a winnable game at Michigan.
Disappointing because they turned the ball over three times in the final minute in a close loss to Penn State.
Disappointing because they missed a bunch of free throws in a close loss to Nebraska.
Their season could have, and should have, been so much more than it what it became.
Fans tend to go one of two directions in assigning blame. They either blame talent or coaching. For the Gophers, it’s not just one thing or one person.
Their roster clearly lacks high-end talent. They don’t have true go-to players, guys who are consistently reliable or can carry the team. Pitino needs to fix that in recruiting.
However, the Gophers have more talent and experience than their record shows, and that falls on Pitino, who didn’t get the most out of this group.
For whatever reason(s), his players played tentative and made critical mistakes late in those early conference losses — and their season subsequently went off the rails.
Close losses became a season-long narrative, but that shouldn’t in any way be misconstrued as a positive sign. A team with this many veteran players shouldn’t find solace in simply being in close games. This wasn’t a great year for the Big Ten.
We’re not ready to buy the notion that Pitino is overmatched by the job. He deserves more time before we cast complete judgment on his coaching acumen.
By the same token, those who hailed Pitino as a savior because of his last name and fretted that he would win big overnight and then bolt for greener pastures should realize that he’s still a young coach learning the ropes in a power conference that features some terrific coaches.
Pitino tried different tactics, hoping to save the season. He benched seniors, changed point guards, even banned players from Twitter.
Nothing worked long enough to make the Gophers relevant late in the season. Now they know they must beat long odds and win the Big Ten tournament to avoid another trip to the NIT.
The Gophers never looked like a great team. But having to listen to Wisconsin fans chant “NIT!” in their home arena wasn’t what anyone expected, either.