Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Winter of Discontent for Gopher Sports

I have to admit that I've been a bit down in the dumps this week, sports-wise, that is. The Gopher hockey team had a chance to get its season back on track with a sweep of an inferior Alaska-Anchorage team and lost a 2-1 game Saturday, one night after throttling UAA with a seven-goal effort. The next day, the Gopher basketball team put up its worst defensive performance in three seasons in a nationally-televised loss at Ohio State to drop their league mark to 4-5. A last-second victory over winless Penn State over the weekend evened the mark at 5-5.

Thank goodness I am no longer a Viking fan, or the discontent would be only that much deeper.

I'd like to think that I am a bit measured when it comes to my local teams. However, I have to admit that I had sky-high expectations for both the Gopher basketball and hockey teams this season, and that my expectations have been completely crushed thus far. There are still two months for both programs to turn things around, but both appear unable to do so. Never can I remember being so thoroughly disappointed with the performance of my winter sports teams than in the winter of 2009-10.

Let's start on the hardwood. Coach Tubby Smith brought the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament in 2009 in his second season on the bench. Although the Gophers lost in the first round of the Big Dance last season, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this season. The Gophers lost just four players off last season's 22-11 team, and neither was a major contributor. Solid players Lawrence Westbrook, Damian Johnson, Paul Carter, and Al Nolen all returned. Freshman contributors Ralph Sampson III, Devoe Joseph, and Colton Iverson were all coming back more experienced and polished, and each had shown signs in 2008-09 of being very good players. Add to the mix, a recruiting class which was nationally-ranked, and many thought the Gophers had an opportunity to finish top-three in the competitive Big Ten with a shot at making a run in the NCAA Tournament. A preseason #18 ranking was thought by many to be a conservative estimate.

Trouble started early for the M&G basketball team. Before the first game, Coach Smith suspended senior Devron Bostick and incoming freshman Royce White for undisclosed violations of team rules. White was the centerpiece of a strong recruiting class who was expected to be a major part of the rotation this season. Also, incoming transfer Trevor Mbakwe was also suspended due to pending legal issues stemming from an assault charge the previous spring in Miami, FL. Mbakwe was the big man of the incoming class who was counted upon to be the bruiser and banger to compliment the athleticism of White, Westbrook, incoming freshman Rodney Williams, and others. Instead, he has yet to suit up for the Gophers. Bostick returned after his suspension, but White's troubles were just beginning.

He was charged and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from an alleged theft incident at Macy's at the Mall of America, in which White was charged with getting into a physical altercation with a security guard. As this process was playing out, he was suspected in an apparent theft of a laptop computer in a U of M dorm room. White quit college basketball via a YouTube video, only to be allowed to practice with the team after family members and other advisers intervened on his behalf with Smith. White was charged with misdemeanor trespassing in the laptop theft incident, and just Monday announced he was withdrawing from the U - this time permanently - but has yet to speak with Smith. The roller-coaster involving White has proven to be a distraction for the team all season long.

Despite all the off-the-court shenanigans, the Gophers started the season with some promise. They beat three cupcakes at home before picking up a nice victory against #10 Butler in the 76 Classic holiday tournament. They lost to a red-hot Portland squad one night later in the tourney, and lost a tough consolation game to Texas A&M two nights later. In the ACC/Big Ten Challenge three nights later, the Gophers blew a lead and lost to Miami on the road, making it three consecutive losses for the team in games they should have probably have won. The team righted the ship after that and won its next seven games, including the first two Big Ten outings against Penn State and Iowa to move to 11-3. After a competitive first half, the Gophers were blown out at #4 Purdue, but rebounded with perhaps their best performance of the season against Ohio State a few days later, winning 73-62 and completely shutting down OSU's all-Big Ten player Evan Turner.

At 12-4, the Gophers faced a brutal task of having to play at Michigan State and Ohio State in a two-plus week span, sandwiching games at Indiana, at home vs. Michigan State and Northwestern. The Gophers played MSU tough in East Lansing for parts of the game only to fade at the end to drop to 12-5, and then lost an inexcusable game at Indiana in OT, while neglecting to close out an under-manned Hoosier team. The Gophers then came home to play Michigan State without their starting point guard in the most recent off-the-court issue, as Al Nolen was ruled academically ineligible for spring semester. Still, the Gophers played inspired ball against the Spartans, taking a 13-point lead with seven minutes remaining in the game. The Spartans mounted a furious rally and the Gophers' last-second chance to win went up in smoke with a tough loss. After rebounding from a sluggish start to beat Northwestern, the Gophers failed to show up at Ohio State and were blown out of the gym, thanks to 63% Ohio State shooting and plenty of alley-oops and dunks. Again, a last-second Westbrook shot at Penn State saved the team from further embarrassment.

At 14-8 (5-5 in the conference), the Gophers are faced with having to make a serious run to qualify for the NCAA Tournament; something which looks very unlikely.

On the ice, the problems have been different, but the results have been no less disappointing. The Gophers finished sixth in the competitive WCHA last season, but returned virtually everyone. Talent-wise, many thought this year's Gopher team was better than Coach Don Lucia's NCAA Championship teams of 2002 and 2003. The 2009-10 team featured three NHL first round draft picks (David Fischer, Nick Leddy, Jordan Schroeder), along with two high second round picks (Aaron Ness and Zach Budish). All in all, the Gophers have 20 NHL draftees on their current roster. With an incoming class featuring Leddy and Budish, the Gophers were thought to be adding to an already supremely-talented team which already had holdovers Schroeder, Ness, Cade Fairchild, Jay Barriball, and Alex Kangas in goal.

The problems started early for the Gophers. The team was shut out by North Dakota in its first game 4-0 up in Grand Forks, only to rally for a tie the next night. Returning home to face nationally-ranked Denver, the Gophers were shut out 3-0 on consecutive nights to start the season 0-3-1 in the league, scoring a total of three goals and losing all three games via shutout. The consecutive shutouts at home marked the first time that had occurred in over 60 years.

With pressure intense, the Gophers throttled Alaska-Anchorage at home on October 30, only to lose Leddy in the game to a broken jaw. They swept the Seawolves to move to 2-3-1, but were playing short on the blueline. The week which followed was not good, as Barriball went down with a season-ending knee injury suffered practice. Then, sophomore defenseman San Lofquist quit the team to join the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League, leaving the Gophers with five regular defenseman and forcing walk-on Brian Schack into the lineup. The Gophers split that weekend at Wisconsin, and then split the following weekend at home against Bemidji State. The Sunday night loss to Bemidji started a four-game losing streak which culminated in the Gophers losing in their worst performance in recent history - a 6-0 loss to Michigan. They rebounded to beat Michigan State the next night, but then lost a home game to Minnesota State the following weekend.

Starting with Saturday, December 5's victory at Minnesota State, the Gophers appeared to have righted the ship, launching into a 7-1-2 run which ended with a three-out-of-four point weekend against North Dakota. The following weekend, the Gophers were swept against St. Cloud State, and split last weekend's set at Alaska-Anchorage. In Saturday night's game, the Gophers lost a chance to pass North Dakota in the standings and pretty much relegated themselves to second-division status in the WCHA.

The pucksters are 13-13-2 overall, and just 8-10-2 in the WCHA. The are currently in seventh place in the league, seven points out of fifth place - and the final home ice spot for the WCHA's first round playoffs. They are 36th nationally in goals per game (2.79) and are hanging by a thread in the vaunted PairWise rankings. Despite hosting a regional for the second year in a row, the Gophers appear to be a long-shot to get an NCAA Tournament bid this season.

Which performance is more disappointing is tough to say. Both teams had reasonable lofty expectations going into the season and neither squad has delivered. Both teams have significantly underachieved. Both squads have battled issued beyond their control, with the cagers battling off-the-court academic and legal issues while the pucksters have fought injuries and defections, but good teams move beyond issues.

As indicated earlier, there is still time to prove me wrong, but it looks like we'll have no dogs in the hunt come NCAA Tournament time for both basketball and hockey.

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