There’s often talk about the Gophers football team’s long battle to get back to the Rose Bowl and win an undisputed Big Ten championship for the first time since 1960.
But the Gophers men’s basketball team has struggled nearly as much as the football team when it comes to winning a Big Ten title.
The Gophers’ last Big Ten basketball title was in 1996-1997, when they went 31-4 (16-2 in Big Ten play) under Clem Haskins and reached the Final Four, but that season was wiped off the books because of the academical scandal that tore the basketball department apart.
So technically, the Gophers’ last Big Ten title was from the 1981-1982 season, when Jim Dutcher led a squad that featured center Randy Breuer and guard Trent Tucker to a 23-6 finish, including going 14-4 in league play.
The Gophers’ other conference-winning squad in the past 50 years was in 1971-1972 under Bill Musselman. They finished 18-7 (11-3 Big Ten), with forward Clyde Turner leading the team in scoring at 18.6 points per game. But before that, you have to go back to 1936-37 to find a Big Ten title for Gophers men’s hoops.
Minnesota has eight Big Ten titles, a number which ranks ninth in the conference, ahead of only Northwestern, Penn State (joined the conference in 1990), Nebraska (joined in 2011), Maryland and Rutgers (both joined in 2014).
Minnesota suffered one of the most difficult losses in recent memory Wednesday night at Williams Arena, when No. 9 Maryland used a 10-1 rally over the final 2 minutes, 2 seconds to steal a 74-73 victory on Darryl Morsell’s three-pointer with 1.9 seconds left. The Gophers battled the Terrapins every inch of the way for a victory they deserved, but couldn’t hold on to what was once a 17-point lead.
The Gophers have lost several close games they could have won with a few breaks going their way. Coach Richard Pitino said after the game that the loss was one of the toughest of his career.
“It was the most difficult game I have been a part of, seeing so many great things in the first half,” Pitino said. “We missed some crucial free throws in the second half and gave up some offensive rebounds and they hit a really tough shot at the end there.”
The Gophers have lost three consecutive home games to Iowa, Indiana and Maryland by a combined 14 points.
“It has been very difficult, we could have won all three of them,” Pitino said. “I feel for our guys. They’re playing hard, and I need to get them back and positive again.”
Coffey, Curry missed
This team could have been great if guard Amir Coffey had decided to return instead of turning pro — he went undrafted but was signed as a free agent by the L.A. Clippers — or if forward Eric Curry hadn’t suffered another season-ending knee injury.
The Gophers are 13-14, 7-10 in Big Ten play. Through 27 games last season, they were 17-10 and 7-9 in the conference. They finished 9-11 in league play last year and eventually lost 70-50 to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
If you added Coffey to the current roster with sophomore center Daniel Oturu (averaging 20.0 points and 11.4 rebounds) and sophomore guard Marcus Carr (15.5 points, 6.7 assists, 5.6 rebounds), this club could have competed for a Big Ten title.
Coffey has played in eight games for the Clippers, averaging 2.5 points. He also has played 13 games in the G League, averaging 16.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
Curry, meanwhile, has had one of the toughest stretches of bad-luck injuries as any recent Gopher.
After averaging 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in 34 appearances as a freshman in 2016-2017, he has only appeared in 15 games since because of injuries.
One bright spot for Pitino is he already has landed two recruits for next season, guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. of Brewster (N.H.) Academy and forward Martice Mitchell of Bloom (Ill.) High School in Chicago Heights. Both are four-star recruits, according to 247sports.com.
The coaches of those two players report that they are vital members of squads that will compete for state championships in the coming weeks.
Brewster Academy coach Jason Smith said in an e-mail that the 6-foot Mashburn is a captain for the team, which is 29-2 overall and will be the No. 1 seed in the upcoming New England Prep School Class AAA tournament. They have eight players committed to Division I programs.
Mashburn is averaging 11 points per game and is typically called upon to defend the other team’s top scoring guard, Smith noted.
Mitchell’s team is having similar success, according to coach Dante Maddox Sr., who noted his club is 26-6 and viewed as either the top-ranked or second-best team in Illinois, depending on the poll.
Maddox said a leg injury limited the 6-10 Mitchell early in the season, but he has come on of late for a team with five D-I starters.
In recent games against ranked opponents, Mitchell had one contest with 12 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks and another with 17 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. He is averaging 9.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks.
“He is a leader who plays with a high motor and passion,” Maddox said. “He will need to be a major contributor, in that he is our biggest advantage, in order to win a state title.”
Do the Gophers still have an NCAA tournament shot? They are 45th in the country in NET ranking, which is an NCAA calculation the selection committee relies heavily on when picking teams for the tournament.
ESPN.com currently has 10 Big Ten clubs making the NCAA tournament, double of any other conference.
Ken Pomeroy, who does ratings that the NCAA also considers, has the Gophers ranked as the 32nd-best team in the nation.
One reason they have a shot to make the field is that Pomeroy has 12 Big Ten teams ranked in the top 36 clubs in the country. There isn’t another conference producing that level of quality basketball.
So if the Gophers can finish around .500 in conference play, or maybe win a few games at the Big Ten tournament, they could still make the field.
As ESPN.com wrote of the Gophers’ tournament chances: “The Golden Gophers are 13-14 and looking for a miracle. More specifically, looking for one that will work in their favor this time.”