A season filled with so much potential fell short of the Sweet Sixteen for the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team. The Gophers, once the No. 8 team in the country, bowed out of the NCAA tournament on Sunday after a 78-64 loss to No. 3 seed Florida.
So ends what has been a rollercoaster ride for coach Tubby Smith and his Gophers this season. There were many highs along the way — a 15-1 start, a win over then-No. 1 Indiana, and Friday’s first-round rout of sixth-seeded UCLA — but there were also many lows. The lows included a stretch of 11 losses in 16 games to finish out the season, including road losses to Nebraska and Purdue. There was also the early exit from the Big Ten Tournament after losing to Illinois in the first round.
And finally, Sunday’s double-digit loss to the Gators ended the up-and-down season on a low note. It didn’t help the 11th-seeded Gophers that Florida shot 56.8 percent from the field and 10-of-20 from 3-point range. While Minnesota showed some fight in the second half, the deficit was too much for Smith’s team to overcome.
The opening-round win two days earlier was Smith’s first NCAA tournament win in his six seasons at Minnesota. Now that this year is over, there will surely be questions and speculation as to whether Sunday’s game was his last as the Gophers coach. As Minnesota faded late in the season there were plenty of fans calling for a changing of the guard. Those fans seemed frustrated not only with Smith’s in-game coaching ability, but also the fact that many of his players fail to progress throughout their careers.
Those who argue the case against Smith will surely note the way his team finished the 2012-13 season, fading from a Big Ten title contender to a No. 9 seed in the conference tournament. Of course, there is also the issue of his contract buyout, which would cost the university $2.5 million. Smith signed a contract extension in July that is supposed to keep him around through the 2016-17 season, but of course there are no guarantees in college basketball.
Regardless of whether or not Smith is back, an examination of the players leaving and those returning can give a sense as to what to expect from Minnesota next year. The Gophers lose a senior leader in Trevor Mbakwe, who finished his sixth season of NCAA eligibility this year. The St. Paul native led the Big Ten in rebounding this season, just like he did during his junior year. The 24-year-old Mbakwe battled his way back from a torn ACL last season (as well as yet another off-the-court incident) to once again become an impact player for the Gophers.
Also gone is Rodney Williams, an athletic forward who dazzled fans with his high-flying dunks during his Gophers career. But Williams never developed a consistent jump shot, which would have made him a more complete player. Still, he was the team’s second-leading rebounder and third-leading scorer.
As for what the Gophers bring back next year, the two biggest pieces will be the Hollinses — sophomore Andre Hollins and junior Austin Hollins. In Sunday’s game against Florida, it was Andre Hollins almost single-handedly bringing Minnesota back into the game with his 25-point effort (including 6-of-10 from downtown). Hollins was the catalyst in the Gophers’ win over UCLA as the sophomore from Memphis scored a game-high 28 points. With Mbakwe and Williams gone, there’s a good chance Andre Hollins could be the focal point of Minnesota’s offense next season.
Austin Hollins has also developed into a scoring threat for the Gophers, although he didn’t score as consistently as Andre Hollins. The junior forward finished second on the team in scoring and is Minnesota’s best perimeter defender.
After the Hollinses, the Gophers will have several question marks entering next season. Can Joe Coleman develop a consistent offensive game? What, if anything, can 6-foot-10 Mo Walker bring as an inside presence? Will freshman Wally Ellenson become the player Minnesota was hoping he would — an athletically gifted player who also has range — as a sophomore?
Perhaps the biggest question facing Minnesota this offseason: will Smith be the coach next year? He and UCLA coach Ben Howland were both on the hot seat before their respective schools met in the first round Friday. Howland lost not only the game but also his job, as he was fired on Sunday.
Unlike Howland, Smith won a tournament game to extend his season and possibly his career. But will that on victory be enough for him to save his job? The answer to that question will close the book on what has been a wild ride for the Gophers.