MINNEAPOLIS >> Early in this eminently embarrasing season at Minnesota, coach Richard Pitino recounted his warning to the administrators at the time he was hired that his third year could be rough.
If they only knew.
Pitino's foresight was based purely on the imbalance of class sizes. The roster he inherited was experienced, with a drop-off expected after that group departed. The Gophers plummeted all right, to a depth never before reached in the 121-year history of the program. They finished 8-23, their most defeats ever.
The back-to-back losses at home to mid-major neighbors South Dakota and South Dakota State were humbling. The 14-game losing streak that spurred the 0-13 start in Big Ten play was disheartening. The season bottomed out, though, with less than two weeks to go when guards Kevin Dorsey, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer were suspended as punishment for sex videos that were posted to Dorsey's social media accounts.
The injury-to-insult moment came last week against rival Wisconsin when Joey King, the only remaining senior, broke his right foot near the end of the game to unceremoniously end his college career. The Gophers finished with a 23-point defeat by lowly Rutgers and a 33-point loss to Illinois in the conference tournament.
"I feel bad for the guys that played in the game," Pitino said Wednesday after the 85-52 trouncing by an Illini team that finished third-to-last in the league but beat the Gophers three times.
Eight players appeared in the game, including three walk-ons. Their collective season average was 31.8 points per game. The five missing players who were still on the team in mid-February averaged 47.9 points per game between them.
"The fatigue gets to you," forward Charles Buggs said.
Once the Gophers can catch their breath this spring, they'll have no trouble quickly looking forward and forgetting about the struggles of the last few months. The status of the suspended trio must be re-assessed, but regardless of their availability next season there's a much-needed infusion of fresh talent coming.
"We have a really bright future ahead of us," said forward Jordan Murphy, whose nine double-doubles tied for the Big Ten lead, one of the few success stories.
That starts with forwards Reggie Lynch (Illinois State) and Davonte Fitzgerald (Texas A&M), transfers who had to redshirt this season by NCAA rule and will be juniors in the fall. Pitino's decision to take them contributed to the diluted roster this season, but their experience and size will be more than welcomed in 2016-17.
The incoming freshmen are highly touted, too, with forward Eric Curry (Little Rock, Arkansas) joining a pair of Minnesota natives in guard Amir Coffey (Hopkins) and forward Michael Hurt (Rochester).
"When you lose and then you have some disciplinary issues, there's always going to be doubts from people who don't know the whole story. That's not to say that people are telling the wrong story, but there's only so much everybody can know," Pitino said. "From every parent that we've spoken to in our program, from every recruit we've spoken to, every recruit's parents, they all believe that we're doing the right thing. Not only for the culture of our program, but to protect everybody in this program, to protect the image of this program and to teach our guys. Everybody has been arm in arm with us, and I think everyone believes that we have a still extremely bright future."
That future will assumedly include the humbled trio of Dorsey, Mason and McBrayer, who watched their teammates struggle on the court without them.
"At the end of the day it's got to be bigger than wins and losses," Pitino said Tuesday before the team departed for the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. "You've got to make decisions that you feel are beneficial for the program in the long term, and I think those guys understand that. They've been good in practice. They've been good in the bench. They've been good teammates, and that's all that you can ask for right now."