This was the Gophers’ 13th appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the seventh time that they have been dismissed in their first game.
Minnesota first played in the NCAA tournament as the Big Ten champion in 1972. It was a 25-team bracket and there was no formal seeding.
The Gophers had a first-round bye, and lost to Florida State (then an independent) in the Round of 16. Hugh Durham’s Seminoles wound up losing to UCLA in the national championship game.
The other 12 appearances have come in the era of seeding. The five previous first-round losses came as follows:
1995-The Gophers lost as an 8-seed to No. 9 St. Louis.
1999-The Gophers lost as a 7-seed to No. 10 Gonzaga, on the day after the St. Paul Pioneer Press broke its academic fraud story and four players (including two starters) were suspended for that NCAA opener.
2005-The Gophers lost as an 8-seed to No. 9 Iowa State.
2009-The Gophers lost as a 10-seed to No. 7 Texas.
2010-The Gophers lost as an 11-seed to No. 6 Xavier.
Thus, the turnaround season for the 2016-17 Gophers also includes by seeding the worst first-round loss in the program’s less-than-storied NCAA history. Yes, these Gophers were over-seeded, but it doesn’t change the historical record:
Richard Pitino’s first NCAA tournament team now has on its resume the highest seed, a No. 5, of any Gophers outfit to be eliminated immediately. And as Chip Scoggins pointed out in Monday’s Star Tribune column, it happened decisively, with Middle Tennessee State (known simply as “Middle’’) being faster, more aggressive and smarter.
Last Sunday, we were told the Gophers had been handed the perfect scenario: Playing nearby in Milwaukee, with a 5-seed, and with Butler as the No. 4, providing an eminently winnable second-round game.
To make things interesting, the NCAA had provided the Gophers with a strong opponent as 12-seeds go, and bettors to Vegas sports books had turned Minnesota from the opening favorite to a 1 ½-point underdog by game time.
Still, Pitino’s lads were a fourth-place team that had been given the second-best seed among Big Ten teams, and if you’re second best the Big Ten has to offer, you should be able to handle the best that Conference USA can bring, right?
I thought that. Statistically, Middle didn’t shoot many threes, and trying to get inside would play right into the Gophers’ hands, meaning those big mitts on the right arms of Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy and Eric Curry.
It was 7-0 for the Gophers right of the chute, with Lynch doing his ball swatting, and then Middle got smart, and the Gophers became dense.
Middle stuck with its aggressive approach, and then it threw a zone trap and a matchup zone at the Gophers, and they reacted like Tubby Smith’s Gophers used to when they saw Bill Carmody’s zone with Northwestern:
Like it was a quiz in advanced trigonometry, with a few seconds and no outside help to answer the question.
The Gophers certainly weren’t getting help from Richard Pitino and his staff on how to attack this thing. Nate Mason, unanimously selected as the all-Big Ten point guard, was a confused mess … and then came up with a sore hip in the second half for good measure.
The Gophers did make the inevitable push to get within four later in the second half, and then faded again. Somehow, they wound up with a decisive three- or four-minute stretch where it became the Dupree McBrayer show.
I like McBrayer as much (and maybe more) than the next observer, but someone should have reminded Dupree that Amir Coffey still was on the court. If they were trying to force something by storming the Middle defense, the Gophers had a better chance with Coffey.
He’s an outstanding freshman, he’s going to get a bit thicker, and he’s going to be great before he leaves after his junior season. Mason’s back, McBrayer’s back, the Washington kid is coming in from New York with what appears to be a sizable talent and ego, but next season … this should be Coffey’s team.
In the end, the Gophers took advantage of a softer-than-usual Big Ten to put together an eight-game winning streak and peak at 11-6 in the conference, and then this happened:
They were terrible in the second half and lost at Wisconsin to end the regular season. They had a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament and outmuscled Michigan State in the quarterfinals. They were awful in losing to Michigan in the semifinals. And then they became the best-seeded team in Gophers’ history to lose in the NCAA’s first round.
Not much of a finish.
The excuse of the Akeem Springs’ injury will be offered by many as a big factor in those last two losses, but the absence of depth is also on Pitino.
Ahmad Gilbert, a sophomore of some talent, was buried all season in what seems an obvious attempt to get him to transfer and seize the scholarship. He could have played some, with Coffey as co-handler of the ball with Mason, but after sitting all season, it was too late for Gilbert to help after Springs was hurt.
Good season. Far from the great the maroon zealots want to offer.
And in the end, the No. 5 seed becomes a scarlet number more than an accomplishment.