Even President is picking Gophers vs. UCLA

MINNEAPOLIS — Seemingly everyone is picking the Gophers men’s basketball team to beat UCLA in their first game of the NCAA tournament.

Even the President of the United States.

In his annual bracket selection with ESPN’s Andy Katz, President Barack Obama penciled in Minnesota to beat UCLA in the first round. While Obama has the Gophers losing in the next round to No. 3 Florida, he also seems to be jumping on the Minnesota bandwagon despite the Gophers’ underdog status as a No. 11 seed against No. 6 UCLA.

“Minnesota’s been playing tough,” the president told Katz. “I think Tubby Smith’s team is going to do pretty well.”

That’s the way many others feel about the Gophers, who go up against the sixth-seeded Bruins just one week after UCLA lost Jordan Adams, its second-leading scorer to a broken foot. Despite Minnesota’s struggles at the end of the season — the Gophers have lost three in a row and 11 of their last 16 — Tubby Smith’s team is favored in Vegas by three points and seems to be the trendy pick as people across the country fill out their brackets.

Ask the Gophers players if they buy into the buzz that everyone’s picking them, though, and they’ll quickly downplay it.

“You can’t pay attention to any of that,” said senior forward Rodney Williams. “Last year, there were two 15 seeds that beat No. 2 seeds. Nobody had those guys picked to win. You can’t really pay attention to any of that stuff. You’ve just got to go out there and play ball.”

Friday’s matchup in Austin, Texas, between Minnesota and UCLA will be the last game played in the Round of 64. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:57 p.m. CT on truTV.

When the Gophers and Bruins do hit the court, there’s a good chance it will be a fast-paced, high-scoring game. UCLA averaged 74.7 points per game, 28th in the nation. While Minnesota scored just 68.4 points per game, the Gophers seemed to have much better success this season when they played an up-and-down style of basketball. Too often, their half-court offense would get bogged down. The Gophers were at their best when they were able to force turnovers and score transition baskets. Friday’s matchup should yield itself well to that style of game.

The tournament is a chance for Minnesota to put behind it the struggles of the last two months. The Gophers were once the No. 8-ranked team in college basketball but finished the regular season unranked. They were the No. 9 seed in the Big Ten tournament and lost to Illinois in the first round.

Minnesota’s players and coaches are trying their best to forget the things that went wrong leading up to the postseason.

“They forget about it anyway. We’re moving to the next thing,” Smith said. “I’ve seen a renewed spirit, a renewed energy, and that’s kind of got me happier.”

The key for the Gophers will be shutting down freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who led UCLA with 17.8 points per game. Adams was second with 15.3 points, while 6-foot-10 junior Travis Wear averaged 11.2 points. But the Bruins were not a deep team, as coach Ben Howland primarily played a rotation of seven guys.

Minnesota may have a bit more depth, but the Gophers also need to get consistent scoring from a few players. There hasn’t seemingly been a go-to scorer for Smith’s team this season, although sophomore guard Andre Hollins may have been the closest thing to that.

“Andre’s been the most consistent scorer we’ve had all year long, but you can’t do it alone,” Smith said. “We need other people. … We need another offensive threat, a perimeter threat, and that’s been our biggest challenge.”

This will be the Gophers’ third NCAA tournament appearance under Smith. Minnesota lost in the first round in its two previous tournament games. But Smith does have experience going deep in the tournament, including an NCAA title with Kentucky in 1998.

Because of a lack of postseason success, Smith’s name has come up as a potential coach on the hot seat. The same goes for Howland, who Smith and Minnesota will be up against Friday, as the Bruins coach hasn’t lived up to the high expectations at basketball-rich UCLA.

The Gophers’ players still believe in Smith, and they believe — as they have all year — that they can compete with just about any team in the country.

“I think we could go far,” Mbakwe said. “We all believe that. … We can’t have games with high turnovers, which has cost us. From here on out, there’s going to be nothing but good teams. Now we just have to believe in Coach. He’s been here before. He knows what it takes to get to the championship. We’ll follow his lead.”

Smith has yet to win an NCAA tournament game at Minnesota, but the Gophers —and President Obama — think this will finally be the year.

“That’s good. We’re a good team. People know we’re a good team,” Hollins said. “We’re just going to have to go out and prove it.”

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