Column: Losses cost Gophers this season

Relying on newcomers doomed Minnesota’s season.

by David Nelson

Richard Pitino has done almost everything to get the Minnesota men’s basketball team back on track.

He’s banned Twitter, flip-flopped point guards and shuffled frontcourt rotations, all to no avail.

Fans and pundits even pointed fingers at the head coach himself as Pitino tried to fix a hole in Minnesota’s ship using duct tape.

The fact is, this season came down to not what the Gophers had on their bench, but what they didn’t have: depth.

Wisconsin ran up and down the Williams Arena court on Thursday night. Minnesota could only watch as the best team in the Big Ten poured in bucket after bucket.

“That’s about [as] impressive of a team as I’ve seen,” Pitino said. “They just make you pay. They’re a great team. That’s what great teams do.”

The Badgers brought player after player into the game, but the Wisconsin offense continued functioning like a well-oiled freight train flying down a hill.

The Gophers did not share that same luxury.

The fall of the Minnesota men’s basketball team did not begin on Dec. 31, the day of the Purdue matchup that started the Gophers’ five-game losing streak in Big Ten play.

Instead, the fall began in late November, when the team announced sophomore guard Daquein McNeil’s suspension.

Minnesota consequently lost its biggest contributor off the bench.

While not always a top scoring option, McNeil’s experience in Pitino’s system and ability to guard the one, two or three spot allowed Minnesota to have some flexibility with its rotations.

McNeil’s absence gave freshman guard Nate Mason a great deal of playing time.

The Gophers, however, also had to rely on a newcomer in the frontcourt with the regression of redshirt senior center Elliot Eliason.

Last year, Eliason became a fixture for Minnesota’s frontcourt and provided a force to be reckoned with defensively.

But shortcomings both offensively and defensively brought freshman center Bakary Konaté into the fold quicker than many expected.

While still raw, Konaté held Wisconsin senior forward Frank Kaminsky in check during the time he was on the floor.

“We started getting stops when Bakary came in the game,” Pitino said. “I’m very very excited about him.”

Konaté and Mason will both be centerpieces for the Gophers for however long the two stay at Minnesota.

“I’m excited to build around those guys,” Pitino said.

Those two both performed admirably filling in for McNeil, Eliason and a regressed DeAndre Mathieu.

But asking them to mature so quickly and save the drowning Gophers ended up being the team’s downfall.