This time last week, we spoke with Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino one-on-one for a Q&A heading into the final regular-season game of the season against Penn State.
The Gophers have played three games since then — the Penn State game, which was a bad home loss; a victory over Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament’s first round on Wednesday; and a loss to Ohio State in the second round Thursday.
The season still might not be over, as there is a chance that Minnesota will get the opportunity to defend its NIT championship (which no team really wants to do).
Point being: during that session, we asked Pitino who the Gophers’ MVP is this season because, frankly, we were having a hard time thinking of who it would be.
And even though there have been three games since the question and there could be more coming, we don’t think the answer is any different right now. Here’s what he had to say last week — after a pause to think for more than 5 seconds:
“Well, it’s been funny. They’ve all kind of gone through phases. I’m not sure if I know. It was Mo (Walker) at one point. It was Andre (Hollins) at some point. It’s been Nate (Mason) at some point. Even DeAndre (Mathieu) has been solid, and Joey (King). I don’t think we really have an MVP. And that doesn’t mean we’re not a good team. But I don’t think — and I’ve always said it, and it’s not a knock on Andre — that we have one guy who is the clear-cut guy on the team. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a good team, but I don’t think we have that.”
Pitino is right in that having a clear-cut team MVP is not essential for success. A number of players from undefeated and very balanced Kentucky, for instance, play massive roles but it’s hard to pick one who always stands out. It’s nice to have different players who can step up.
That said, Pitino’s answer does speak to the problem of inconsistency that plagued the Gophers for so much of the season. Not to pick on Hollins, who overall had a similar season to what he had as a sophomore and junior, but if there is one player outsiders expected to shoulder the scoring load (even if Pitino says he doesn’t think of him as “the guy”), it’s him.
During the middle of the Big Ten schedule, when the Gophers went 5-3, Hollins scored at least 17 points in seven different games and was deadly from three-point range. In the other 12 games – an 0-5 start to the Big Ten season, plus the final five regular-season Big Ten games and two in the conference tournament (2-5 record combined) — Hollins was held to 7 points or fewer six different times and shot a combined 19 for 73 (26 percent) from three-point range.
The lack of a go-to player/MVP could also be a factor in so many close losses in crunch time. When you don’t have one dominant player in end of game situations, it can be challenging to score — or at least to have an offensive identity.
Maybe the answer for future Gophers success under Pitino isn’t having one clear-cut MVP, but rather more good players in general. This year, though, the lack of an MVP seems to be part of the downfall.
We couldn’t name one, and neither could the coach.
While you were sleeping, Jasper Brinkley, who started at middle linebacker for the Vikings in 2014, agreed to terms with the Cowboys, according to a league source. The Vikings were in contact with his people before the start of free agency, but they clearly did not make Brinkley a priority.
Brinkley, who made $830,000 on a one-year contract last season, did a solid job against the run, finishing with 74 tackles and a forced fumble. But because of his limitations in pass coverage, Brinkley was not a part of the team’s sub packages, meaning he usually wasn’t on the field on passing downs. He ended up playing just 42.5 percent of the defensive snaps.
With Brinkley off to Dallas, the Vikings now must find a new starting middle linebacker, though chances are they were already looking for one, which is why Brinkley was allowed to walk.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said at the combine that the free-agent class of middle linebackers did not wow him. He also said this year’s group of draft-eligible middle linebackers wasn’t great either.
Rey Maualuga, Zimmer’s middle linebacker in Cincinnati, was among the top free agents available, but he stayed with the Bengals. David Harris, another top middle linebacker, re-signed with the Jets. But a few intriguing players are still out there three days into free agency.
Rolando McClain, the man in the middle for the Cowboys, remains unsigned, but he’s an enigma considering his past legal issues and the fact that he retired a couple of years ago.
Former Patriots and Bills linebacker Brandon Spikes is a two-down thumper like Brinkley — and probably better at it — but he, too, has had trouble keeping up in coverage.
Mason Foster, Nate Irving and D.J. Williams are among the other middle linebackers still out there.
The Vikings could opt to address the position in the draft. They have been eyeing up prospects like Denzel Perryman, Eric Kendricks, Benardrick McKinney, Stephone Anthony and Paul Dawson.
Or maybe they give a longer look to Audie Cole this year after he opened eyes by making plays all over the field in the season finale. He made 14 tackles and swatted down a pass in that game.
It is only March 13, so there is no reason to panic about what the Vikings will do at the position. But with Brinkley signing on with the Cowboys, there will be another new middle linebacker this year.
What’s left to be done for the Vikings? Check out their to-do list in our free agency tracker.
Now that DeMarco Murray has decided to trade in his Cowboys stars for Eagles wings, many Vikings fans — and some NFL talking heads, too — are connecting the dots between the Cowboys and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who may or may not want to go play in Dallas.
For that to happen, though, the Vikings have to be ready to part ways with Peterson. And as I wrote a couple of days ago, they are still trying to talk Peterson into suiting up for them this season.
As of now, there are no more meetings scheduled. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be.
Peterson has said he feels “uneasy” about coming back to Minnesota, partly because he thought the Vikings didn’t have his back when he got put on the commissioner’s exempt list in September.
He also was unhappy that Gov. Mark Dayton said he should be suspended. He is not pleased with this newspaper for writing this article in October. And he no doubt has glanced at his mentions on Twitter and seen all the negative comments directed at him by a sector of the fan base. I’m told by a source who knows him pretty well that all of those things have weighed on his mind.
And with Peterson set to make $12.75 million in salary in 2015, money is the elephant in the room. But the Vikings have not asked him to take a pay cut and might not at any point this offseason.
Now next offseason…? Well, let’s just get through this one first.
Right now, the team has all the leverage if Peterson is angling for a trade or a new contract with more guaranteed money. If he does end up refusing to wear Vikings horns this fall, they could dig their heels in and say, “OK, you either play for us or no one at all.” Or maybe they eventually wave a white flag and just end this saga by trading him away, scoring draft picks in the process.
If that happens, they shouldn’t expect to get much for a running back who turns 30 next weekend, has had three surgeries the past few years, and has a big contract and now off-the-field baggage.
Now maybe Jerry Jones, sans Murray, will be enamored enough with Peterson to offer a high draft pick for him. But even Jones has been responsible and, well, kind of boring the past couple of years.
But remember, the Vikings have to want to trade Peterson for all these swirling trade rumors to be relevant. And right now, based on what I’ve heard, it doesn’t seem like they want to do that.