MINNEAPOLIS — This was supposed to be one of the marquee games for the Minnesota men’s basketball team, the chance to go toe-to-toe with one of the Big Ten’s elite teams in a battle at the top of the conference standings.
That’s not how Tuesday’s tilt against No. 1 Indiana now appears, however.
Once the No. 8 team in the country, the Gophers (18-9, 6-8) are now unranked. Not only that, but Tubby Smith’s team didn’t even receive votes in the latest Associated Press poll released Monday. Minnesota’s tailspin — eight losses in the past 11 games — has forced the Gophers to pull out all the stops as they try to get their psyche back on track. The team received a visit from local sports psychologist Justin Anderson after their latest loss.
Smith didn’t outright admit to using a sports psychologist when asked Monday if he had employed any extra motivational tactics, but did say he’s tried “a few things” to jump-start his slumping team.
“Hopefully it’ll pay off,” Smith said. “We’ll see how they respond.”
Minnesota is coming off a pair of lopsided road losses to Iowa and Ohio State. The Gophers let a big lead slip away against the Hawkeyes before losing by 21. Three days later, Smith’s team lost by 26 to the Buckeyes while committing 21 turnovers.
Things won’t get any easier Tuesday as the Hoosiers (24-3, 12-2) come to Williams Arena. Indiana boasts two players — junior Victor Oladipo and sophomore Cody Zeller — who could vie for Big Ten Player of the Year honors. Oladipo’s average of 14.0 points per game is eighth in the conference. He’s also shooting a Big Ten-best 63.9 percent from the floor and leads the conference in steals with 2.4 per game.
“He’s playing great. He’s a hustle-type player. He’s a key player for them,” Gophers sophomore guard Joe Coleman said of Oladipo. “They go how he goes. He’s definitely one of the top players in the Big Ten.”
Zeller, meanwhile, averages 16.6 points per game, third-most among all Big Ten players. He trails only Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe for the rebounding lead; Zeller’s average of 8.1 boards per game is just shy of Mbakwe’s 8.5.
For a Minnesota team trying to repair its psyche after two embarrassing losses, Tuesday’s visit from the balanced, dangerous Hoosiers couldn’t come at a worse time.
“Right now, we’re a little bit down,” Coleman said. “I think it would be a big win for us, especially with Indiana being the No. 1 team in the nation.”
The Gophers thought perhaps their season would turn around after they beat No. 20 Wisconsin on Feb. 14. The overtime win against their rival prompted a celebration in the locker room, complete with dancing. That win put Minnesota at 6-6 in the Big Ten.
Since then, though, the Gophers have lost two games by a combined 57 points.
“Coming off the Wisconsin win, everybody’s all excited, having a good time, dancing in the locker room,” Smith said. “And then to come out and play the way we’ve played at Iowa, and then it carried over into the next game. I’m eager to see how we respond to those two losses.”
After Tuesday’s game against No. 1 Indiana, Minnesota’s schedule gets significantly easier. The Gophers will host Penn State on Saturday before road games at Nebraska and Purdue to close out the regular season.
Still, though, Minnesota was hoping to be playing for more at this point in the season. The Gophers’ aspirations of possibly competing for a Big Ten title have been dashed. Minnesota still can earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, but the Gophers are playing with a different mindset after their two recent losses.
“Nobody likes losing, when you have to use that as a motivation,” Smith said. “I would hope that they would be angry and eager to come back and say, ‘Hey, that’s not us.’ But also, you have to keep your emotions in check and execute the fundamentals and trust one another. . . . I would hope they would come out angry and play with a real sense of urgency.”