Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hoops Team Puzzled As Season May Be Heading Off The Rails

The Gopher basketball's 2009-10 season started out with such promise. With preseason rankings in the top 25 in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, Minnesota added a top recruiting class to its already experienced rotation of players and looked poised to challenge for a Big Ten championship.

Instead, incoming recruit Trevor Mbakwe was charged in an assault case in Miami and has not participated in any basketball activities this season as he awaits a trial date on the charges. Then, just before the season began, senior Devron Bostick and freshman Royce White were suspended indefinitely by coach Tubby Smith. Bostick's suspension was for unspecified reasons and he eventually returned. White faced legal issues stemming from an assault charge (and later a guilty plea) in November. He had begun practicing with the team before he was charged with three counts of trespassing in a incident which culminated with the theft of a laptop from a U of M dorm.

White was the cornerstone of a strong recruiting class and was expected to be a major contributor to the Gophers this season. His return is obviously questionable.

Despite the off-court distractions, Minny started 4-0 and defeated highly-ranked Butler in the 76 Classic holiday tournament. However, the team lost to Portland the next night, and then to Texas A&M and Miami later in the week. The team righted the ship with five consecutive non-conference wins before starting Big Ten play with a win over Penn State. After losing to Purdue on the road, the Gophers won at Iowa and at home against Ohio State to move to 3-1 in the Big Ten. Facing a 10-day stretch in which they played road games against Michigan State and Indiana, followed by a home game against MSU, the Gophers knew their season faced a crossroads. The Gophers lost all three games, dropping to 3-4 in the Big Ten and facing the reality of a NIT berth unless they get things together.

Now, the Gophers will have to play for a while without their starting point guard, Al Nolen, who was ruled academically ineligible last week by the NCAA. Although the Gophers are appealing the ruling, citing a medical family emergency, they played Saturday's loss against Michigan State without him and missed his defense down the stretch in the 65-64 loss.

The Gophers' schedule this week began with a game at home against Northwestern (also 3-4 in the Big Ten going into Tuesday's matchup), followed by a road game at Ohio State. The Gophers faced an improving Northwestern club on Tuesday and survived some sloppy play to win the game and move to an even 4-4 in the Big Ten.

After OSU, the remaining road games come at Penn State, Northwestern, Illinois, and Michigan, and none of those seems impossible. Of course, the Gophers still have home games remaining with leading teams like Wisconsin and Purdue in order to improve their RPI ranking for NCAA Tournament purposes.

However, with the questionable lineup going forward, the chances of the Gophers making a run this season are lessened. Shooting inconsistency has plagued this team all season long. The Gophers were in all seven games they lost and could easily be in a much better position had they closed games out. Saturday's loss to Michigan State, in which they kicked away a 13-point second half lead, will haunt the team for a while. It was a game they desperately needed to win and should have won. It was a game which would have looked nice to NCAA Tournament evaluators over a league-leading program, but it wasn't meant to be.

The Gophers need to make a run, and a good time to start would be right now.

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