When you open a Golden Gopher basketball media guide a rush of memories floods your brain. Memorable players, record holders, best teams, and unfortunately many years of unmet expectations.
The hope is that Pitino’s 2017-18 Golden Gopher basketball team breaks that trend. They have the talent to break the trend, but a leader must emerge in place of Akeem Springs. Will Minnesota fulfill expectations of Sweet Sixteen plus results?
Let’s revisit that in a moment. First we must look back on why meeting expectations is such a worry.
1989-90. Meeting Expectations.
Losses: Ray Gaffney.
Record improvement: 19-12 to 23-9.
Result. Bringing Richard Coffey, Willie Burton, Jim Shikenjanski, Kevin Lynch, Melvin Newbern, and Walter Bond back the Gophers improved from Sweet 16 to Elite Eight level and captured the hearts of young Gopher fans everywhere. That Georgia Tech loss by two. If only….
1994-95. Falling Short.
Losses: Randy Carter and Ariel McDonald
Record decrease: 22-13 to 19-13
Result. A team that brought back three starters (Jayson Walton, Chad Kolander, and all time leading scorer Voshon Lenard) plus Townsend Orr, John Thomas, and recruits Sam Jacobson and Eric Harris had very high expectations. However, Lenard’s shooting numbers were often ugly (this was the year that he came back to school after being drafted by the Bucks) and a team that had high expectations fell in round one of the NCAAs after getting to round two the season before. The loss of vocal leaders Ariel McDonald and Randy Carter was huge. They were talented offensively by void of chemistry.
1996-97. Surpassing Expectations.
Losses: Mark Jones and David Grimm.
Record improvement: 19-13 to 31-4.
Result. The greatest season in Gopher basketball history. Mark Jones transferring was addition by subtraction, Bobby Jackson was healthy, the high recruiting class of Quincy Lewis, Courtney James, Charles Thomas, and Jackson all played massive roles, and the Gophers made the Final Four. Jackson, Lewis, John Thomas, and Sam Jacobson would all be drafted off this team. The team had leadership in Jackson, Thomas, Clem Haskins, and even Hosea Crittenden who went from senior the year before to student assistant.
1997-98. Falling Short
Losses: Jackson, James, J Thomas , C Thomas, Trevor Winter
Record decrease: 31-4 to 2015
Result. Coming off a Final Four Minnesota fans thought there was a chance they could go right back. Why not? The team lost a couple NBA first round picks but was bringing back starters in Harris, Jacobson, and James plus Lewis and Charles Thomas should plug right in. Add in Miles Tarver, juco transfer Kevin Clark, Russ Archambault, and top 40 recruit Kyle Sanden off the bench and everything should be great! Unfortunately incidents led to Thomas and James leaving the program plus Jacobson’s back injury forced him to miss games against bottom feeders Northwestern and Penn State (plus struggling Michigan State) and this team struggled until late (when they won the NIT).
2002-03. Falling Short
Losses: Travarus Bennett, Dusty Rychart
Record change: 18-13 to 19-14
Result. This was to be Dan Monson’s best team. The 67-66 loss to Illinois from the year before kept the team from the NCAAs but fans were jacked about top recruiting gets Michael Bauer, Rick Rickert, and Jerry Holman all being in the frontcourt together plus Maurice Hargrow would play a bigger role and veteran Kevin Burleson was back. Rickert’s percentages went way down from the year before and the team was void of the toughness that Rychart and Bennett provided the year before. The team improved by one win but was further away from the NCAA berth that everyone expected.
2005-06. Falling Short
Losses: Aaron Robinson, Brent Lawson, Jeff Hagen
Record change: 21-11 to 16-15
Result. The seniors were valuable pieces but the team returned Vince Grier and J’Son Stamper as seniors, brought back Adam Boone and Hargrow who sat out the year before and were now seniors, plus had Dan Coleman, Rico Tucker, and Spencer Tollackson ready for bigger roles. The team was more talented and should have a bigger year right? They were more talented in terms of raw talent but the chemistry and leadership was a disaster. Walk-on Zach Puchtel ended up starting 14 games as Monson searched for anything to spark the group.
2010-11. Falling Short
Losses: Damian Johnson, Lawrence Westbrook, Devoe Joseph, Paul Carter
Record change: 21-14 to 17-14
Result. The year before was one of the most talented teams in Gopher history but Trevor Mbakwe’s suspension for a crime he didn’t commit and Royce White not able to avoid issues took frontcourt talent away. It worked okay, Johnson and Carter were hard working talented players joining Ralph Sampson up front as well as many talented guards. That team went to the NCAAs (after a great Big Ten Tournament run) and lost to Xavier. The next year was to be even better. And then in January, after a 16-4 start, the wheels fell off. Al Nolen missed the last 17 games and Devoe Joseph transferred to Oregon out of nowhere. The team lost 10 of 11 because they had nobody to lead at point guard.
Trend Continues the Next Two years. More Falling Short
That started a trend of February struggles as the 11-12 team lost seven of eight in that month and the 12-13 squad simply lost 10 of their last 15 Big Ten games. No need to relive those years, the team finished below expectations after a great starts for three straight years.
2014-15. Falling Short
Losses: Austin Hollins, Oto Osenieks, Malik Smith
Record change: 25-13 to 18-15
Result. Andre Hollins was a senior, DeAndre Mathieu was back, Mo Walker had his best year, and Carlos Morris came from the juco ranks. Four starters returned and the team had just won the NIT. The team opened Big Ten play with five straight losses and could never recover.
Loss: Akeem Springs
Record change: 24-10 to ?
What will be the result?
Expectations are high as they should be. What’s returning? First Team All Big Ten (Nate Mason), Third Team All Big Ten (Jordan Murphy), Defensive Player of the Year (Reggie Lynch), Coach of the Year (Richard Pitino), and First Team All Big Ten (Amir Coffey). Add in one of the best sixth men in Dupree McBrayer, a talented frosh in Eric Curry, and a top 50 level recruit in Isaiah Washington and you have big expectations. They should be good. So….
Why do we worry? History Tells Us To!
Akeem Springs was a leader. Look back over the years and see the hard working players, like Akeem, that graduated. The leaders, like Akeem, that graduated.
Ariel McDonald. Randy Carter. John Thomas. Bobby Jackson. Travarus Bennett. Dusty Rychart. Jeff Hagen. Damian Johnson. Austin Hollins.
That’s a list of some of the best leaders and/or workers we’ve seen here. They left teams that had a load of talent and often, had more talent. But their leadership and work ethic also left and wasn't replaced, leading to less than memorable seasons.
Akeem Springs fits that above category of leaders.
So will next year’s Gophers be like our Elite Eight team of 89? The Final Four team of 1997? Will they make a run to the Sweet Sixteen level staring big expectations in their face? Or will they slip like so many of their past brothers?
That Minnesota fans is the story of the coming season. I think everybody in Minnesota is ready for the 30 year trend to change.