INDIANAPOLIS — "I feel bad for the guys that played in the game."
Richard Pitino confronted the realities of his team's miserable 2015-16 campaign shortly after it ended Wednesday. Minnesota was hammered by Illinois in an 85-52 decision, a loss made so one-sided by the fact that the Gophers were playing with one of the most undermanned rosters in college basketball.
A crush of dismissals, suspensions and injuries left Pitino with a small number of players actually able to take the floor in the Big Ten Tournament, and it made for the latest embarrassing loss in a season full of them.
Minnesota was suffocated by Illinois' defense, shooting just 39.2 percent on the night and turning the ball over 15 times. And it couldn't keep up with the Illini on the other end, either, as Illinois shot 55.2 percent on the game and splashed home a tournament-record 14 3-pointers.
And it all stemmed from one big thing: a total lack of depth.
"That was quite an uphill battle," Pitino said after the game. "And it was extremely challenging to play like that. So many reasons why it was difficult, just from an offensive standpoint and not really having any guards, to a defensive standpoint and not having any depth, being scared to foul, being tired. I mean, there were so many things that were going to be a recipe for a difficult night."
Carlos Morris was dismissed from the team earlier this season. Three players were recently suspended for posting sex videos to social media. Joey King broke his foot.
It all made for a depleted roster that had no answer Wednesday or in regular-season losses to Illinois, Wisconsin and Rutgers.
King's injury was uncontrollable, and Morris' dismissal came before the Gophers' two Big Ten wins this season. But the three recent suspensions were crushing and Pitino's knew it when he did it. He knew it would make his team significantly hampered for the closing stretch of this season, but he did it anyway for the long-term good of his program, something he reiterated after Wednesday's defeat.
"I felt for our guys," Pitino said. "After the (regular-season) Illinois game, I said it, and I believed it, that we made some decisions that were going to hurt our team in the short term. And we made some decisions that were going to affect wins and losses.
"It's just a couple weeks ago where we were extremely excited about where we were going. We were starting to understand what our identity as a team would be. We were starting to defend. We were starting to play well. Even in the losses, we were very, very close.
"Then when you have an incident where you got to make tough decisions, we did it. And we did it with the culture of our program in mind. We did it understanding that it would be extremely difficult to win. But we felt like it was the right thing moving forward."
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Whether it was the right call remains to be seen. Of course, there wasn't much of a chance of Minnesota making some kind of surprise run at the end of the year or challenging for a championship in the conference tournament. The losses had piled up long before the suspensions.
But Pitino saw his team turning a corner. So did John Groce, for that matter, the Illinois head coach saying the same things Pitino did in his own postgame comments Wednesday. Pitino's decisions meant the Gophers never got to turn that corner. But next season, Pitino hopes and believes, could be a different story.
"That doesn't deter how excited I am about the future of this program. And I am. I really am," Pitino said. "I mean, I look at what we've got sitting out. I look at the recruiting class. I look at the young talent in our program. And I got a lot to be excited about. So nothing has really changed in that regard.
"I think it's going to be good for everybody to take a deep breath and get away a little bit, because it was tough losing the amount of close games that we lost. And then to break through and then have the rug pulled out from under you, where we had to make some tough decisions to suspend some guys. You know what, though, I thought everybody saw what we were becoming. And then, obviously, you have to make some tough decisions and it kind of deters you a little bit. But I think once we take a deep breath and everybody gathers themselves, we're still going to be pretty excited about next year."