For confirmation of just how precarious sports outcomes can be – and the butterfly effect that ensues from one moment – go ahead and watch one more time, if you can stomach it, Darryl Morsell’s game-winning three-pointer for Maryland against the Gophers with 1.9 seconds left Wednesday.
The deep shot, from a couple steps behind the three-point line, rattled on enough parts of the rim that if it was just an inch to the left or an inch longer, it probably would have bounced out.
The Gophers would have preserved a 73-71 win, and even though everything else about the Gophers’ collapse in that game would have been true – the missed free throws, the bad execution – those things would have dissolved into a subplot or more likely a footnote as we instead assessed how a win over a top-10 team put Minnesota back into the NCAA tournament conversation.
But maybe it’s just as well that we’re having the harder conversations now about what went wrong in the final 20 minutes, what went wrong particularly in the final two minutes – and how it is all connected to the things that have gone wrong in the last year, the last three years and the last seven years under head coach Richard Pitino.
I don’t want that to be confused with an idea that everything has gone wrong, since this program has made it to the NCAA tournament in two of the last three years and was in good shape to compete for a bid this year as recently as four games ago.
But here are some of the main contributing factors to the micro and macro problem:
LACK OF DEPTH
Here you find a combination of bad luck, natural college basketball attrition and insufficient player development.
The bad luck: Eric Curry’s injury left Minnesota thin in the frontcourt. The natural attrition: Amir Coffey left a year early to try his luck with a pro career – hardly a shock or something the Gophers shouldn’t have been planning for in the context of the modern game.
The insufficient player development: The Gophers have received just 87 points in 17 Big Ten games from freshmen – about five per game. That’s not nearly enough, and has placed too heavy a burden on a very good sophomore group.
This also speaks to recruiting, where Pitino has won some battles but often come up short (particularly with Minnesota players. The jarring stat in that regard, from Star Tribune Gophers beat writer Marcus Fuller: Only three in-state players out of 22 offered scholarships in the last three classes by the Gophers have stayed home.
Add it up and the Gophers have three players – Marcus Carr, Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur – who rank in the top six in minutes among Big Ten players this season. Carr is the runaway leader at 37.2 minutes per game (next-closest is 34.5) and logged all 40 minutes against Maryland.
If the Gophers have one or two more players in their rotation, maybe they breeze through the second half against Maryland. Or maybe Carr and Kalscheur aren’t gassed at the end of the game, when they missed critical free throws (a possible sign of fatigue). Maybe, even, there’s enough left in the tank to disrupt Morsell’s shot just enough.
Maybe they close out all three of their last three home losses — Iowa, Indiana and Maryland – or at least two of them.
LACK OF EXECUTION
If you’re more inclined to think the end-of-game struggles that have doomed the Gophers this year are more due to a lack of execution, the road still leads back to a lot of the same familiar places.
The Gophers this year are getting barely any production from their 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes. Michael Hurt is buried on the depth chart. Coffey left early. Curry is injured. Guards Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris transferred and are no longer with the Gophers.
Those classes would be juniors and seniors – the type of composed players familiar with a system and calm under pressure. But only some of that is luck or natural attrition. Some of it is recruiting misses, bad fits or stymied development.
Whatever the case, the Gophers often either perform like they don’t know what they’re supposed to do in the biggest moments or fail to execute. They struggle to inbound the ball and have key defensive lapses. Maryland, for instance, had a very clean look at a would-be go-ahead three — but missed — right before Kalscheur’s missed free throw that set up the winning sequence.
Whether it’s experience, fatigue or player quality doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.
Because it all adds up to a shot going in instead of rimming out – and a lot of questions about the future that don’t yet have answers.