Minnesota in another midseason lull
February has mostly been a month to forget for Minnesota under coach Tubby Smith.
The loss at Iowa on Sunday for the Gophers was their 16th defeat in 20 games in February over the past three years. This season, they've dropped seven of their past 10 games and face a tough trip to 18th-ranked Ohio State on Wednesday.
The Gophers (18-8, 6-7 Big Ten) have beaten the Buckeyes in Columbus only once (2005) in their past 11 games there.
Power forward Rodney Williams, who is second on the team in points, rebounds and blocks, could be held out again with a sore left shoulder. Smith said he's concerned about the injury, which occurred 10 days ago in practice.
''It's just the change in attitude. Changing the way we play,'' point guard Andre Hollins said, recalling the way the team recalibrated after last year's slump to reach the NIT championship game.
''We've got to look onto the next mission. We got past it, but we've got to remember what we did wrong, go to Ohio State and tough this one out.''
After rising as high as eighth in the Associated Press poll, Minnesota has fallen out of the Top 25. The Gophers still have, for now, a solid case for an NCAA tournament selection.
But their once-promising start has given way to another middle-of-the-pack performance in the Big Ten. Smith called the 72-51 loss to the Hawkeyes one of the most disappointing of his career.
After practice on Tuesday, spirits were better. That didn't mean this finishing stretch would be any easier.
''This time of year, the Big Ten is tough. You're playing against ranked teams every time you go out, pretty much,'' Smith said. ''So you've got to step up and make plays and take care of the ball. That's always the case, and you don't have much margin for error against anybody, much less top-20 teams that you're going up against.''
In six seasons under Smith, the Gophers are 14-28 in February.
Each year, they've had a significant midseason slide lasting between eight and 10 games that has spoiled any hope they had of finishing in the conference's top tier.
In games played from Jan. 12 through Feb. 17 under Smith, the Gophers are 23-33.
The latest problem is playing against a zone defense, which first stonewalled them in a 55-48 loss at Northwestern on Jan. 23 and then again at Iowa. Hollins played only 19 minutes because of foul trouble and shot 1 for 8 from the floor.
''Yeah, after that performance, I would say teams are looking to play zone against us,'' center Elliott Eliason said. ''We'll probably see a lot more pressure. But we've been working on it, and we've just got to take a deep breath when we see that.''
Eliason will start in place of Williams. The 6-foot-11 sophomore has played well on the high post when Trevor Mbakwe is down low, and his deft passing is important against the zone.
Even better is the ability to make a mid-range jump shot or two.
Success, however, hinges on Hollins and his effectiveness in penetrating the soft spots for pull-up jumpers or back-door passes. The turnovers he's been prone to are going to keep piling up if he can't play under control.
''It starts with me. I know what I need to do now,'' Hollins said. ''That's one of the things in those games where people have been focusing on me, so I need to draw some defenders in and get some more shots for my teammates.''