Gophers remain positive despite tailspin

MINNEAPOLIS — After losing four games in a row, the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team has dropped from No. 8 in the polls to No. 23 in the latest poll released Monday. The skid has also resulted in the Gophers tumbling to seventh place in the Big Ten standings.

All of that has caused plenty of Gophers fans to panic, but Minnesota’s players insist they’re not doing the same.

“Nobody likes to lose, but we’re staying positive,” junior Austin Hollins said Monday, one day before Minnesota hosts Nebraska. “We’re definitely confident. Nobody’s panicking at this point. There’s a lot to play for, a lot of games left, so we’re just going to go one game at a time and take care of this game on Tuesday.”

Minnesota’s latest loss came Saturday against Wisconsin as the Gophers dropped a 45-44 contest at the Kohl Center in Madison. Tubby Smith’s team had a chance to send the game to overtime, but senior Rodney Williams missed what would have been a game-tying free throw at the end of the second half. Before that miss, though, there were plenty of things the Gophers failed to do that would have yielded a different result.

The last four losses have come during perhaps Minnesota’s toughest stretch of its schedule this year. But after Saturday’s loss, the reality is that Minnesota is reeling and needs to find a way to stop the bleeding. Two of the four losses during the skid were against No. 5 teams — a seven-point loss at Indiana, followed by an eight-point loss at home against Michigan five days later. The Gophers then lost on the road to a Northwestern team they probably should have beaten before Saturday’s defeat at the hands of the Badgers.

During those four games, mistakes continued to pop up that were otherwise not an issue earlier in the season (or at least not enough of a problem to impact the outcome of games). Turnovers have plagued the Gophers during their skid. And on Saturday, Minnesota’s shots weren’t falling — the Gophers shot just 16-for-46 from the field. Starters Rodney Williams, Hollins and Joe Coleman combined to shoot 2-for-22.

“It’s mostly mental. We just have to keep having faith,” said senior Trevor Mbakwe. “We all still believe. We still think we’re one of the best teams in the country. Now we just have to go out and actually play that way and play a consistent 40 minutes.”

The current four-game losing streak is a familiar sight for Gophers fans, who watched this team endure four losses to begin the Big Ten season last year and a six-game slide late in the conference slate that dashed Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament hopes. During the 2010-11 season, the Gophers lost nine of their last 10 regular-season games, including their last five to close out the Big Ten schedule.

Many of the current members on Minnesota’s team were around for both of those losing streaks and are pledging that things will be different the third time around and that these last four losses won’t snowball into something worse.

“It’s not easy losing,” Hollins said. “Nobody likes to lose, but it happens, and that’s part of sports. We have to fight through it as a team.”

Added Mbakwe of the team’s past losing streaks: “None of us want to relive that.”

Perhaps a visit from Nebraska will cure what ails the Gophers. The Cornhuskers are just 2-6 in the Big Ten and 11-10 overall. They average just 58.5 points per game, dead last in the conference and near the bottom of all Division I teams in that category. But Nebraska beat a Northwestern team that Minnesota lost to earlier this month, showing the unpredictability of the Big Ten this year.

Sometimes all it takes to get a team back on track is one win. For Minnesota, a victory Tuesday in its home arena could go a long way.

“We’ve just got to get a win,” Smith said. “All we do is talk about it and go through things we correct the things we need to correct. There’s no magic to it. It’s just a matter of cutting back on our mistakes and getting guys to believe in what we’re doing, trust one another, play for each other.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.