Gophers remain confident on way to Chicago
MINNEAPOLIS — Expectations were high for the Minnesota men’s basketball team this season. The Gophers returned nearly everyone from last year’s roster that advanced to the NIT championship. They also welcomed the return of Trevor Mbakwe, a rebounding machine and veteran leader who tore his ACL early last season and was granted another year of eligibility.
The sky was the limit for the Gophers. Seemingly everyone expected them to be a top 25 team and perhaps compete with the Big Ten’s elite. A deep run in the NCAA tournament — something coach Tubby Smith has yet to do in his tenure at Minnesota — was certainly a strong possibility.
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But that’s not how things have unfolded for Smith and the Gophers. Two months ago, the Gophers were the No. 8 team in the country. Now, Minnesota enters this weekend’s Big Ten tournament in Chicago as the No. 9 seed.
“You have the success we had, being a Big Ten team and you kind of have the slide that we had, it’s tough. A lot of people are down on you,” Mbakwe said Wednesday, one day before Minnesota faces Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. “Obviously, you don’t want to hear it, but it comes with it. Everybody’s tough on you, but you have to stay together and you’ve got to believe in one another and you can’t let it get to you.
“I think we still believe we’re one of the best teams.”
At one point this year, the Gophers truly were one of the best teams. They opened the season with a 15-1 record, losing only to No. 5 Duke in the fifth game of the year. During that run, Minnesota beat two ranked Big Ten foes, including snaring a home win over No. 18 Michigan State and a road victory against No. 12 Illinois, the same team the Gophers will face Thursday. Smith’s squad climbed to as high as No. 8 in nation, something Gophers fans hadn’t witnessed in years.
From that point, though, Minnesota struggled to find consistency. It lost four in a row, albeit twice against top five teams, and the Gophers never seemed to recover from that January slump. They failed to win more than two games in a row the rest of the season.
“We’ve had trouble responding to pressure,” Smith said.
One common denominator in most of Minnesota’s losses has been an inability to take care of the ball. In all but two of their Big Ten defeats, the Gophers turned the ball over at least 10 times. In a 26-point loss to Ohio State, that turnover number skyrocketed to 24.
Minnesota also has lacked consistency on offense. It finished sixth in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 69.1 points per game. Indiana led the conference with an average of 80.8 points per game; the Gophers, meanwhile, reached the 80-point mark just three times during Big Ten play.
Minnesota doesn’t have one go-to scorer who can take over games. At times, that balance and depth has been a blessing. It also has proved to be a curse, however. When the Gophers needed a big shot down the stretch, there wasn’t a go-to option. Smith said Wednesday that sophomore guard Andre Hollins is the closest thing the Gophers had to a go-to scorer this season, but even he has been streaky. He is Minnesota’s biggest threat to score 20 points (or 41, like he did against Memphis), but he had just three points in a loss at Iowa and six points in a loss at Northwestern.
The Gophers have lost six of their last nine games, including the final two of the regular season. Road games at Nebraska and Purdue certainly seemed winnable on paper, but Minnesota fell by two to the Cornhuskers and was embarrassed by 16 in the finale against the Boilermakers.
Still, Minnesota’s players insist the team’s confidence remains high.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of effort. It’s a matter of our intensity. It’s a matter of us playing harder,” Hollins said. “We’re trying our best. At times, we could do more. We don’t realize it at times. Just like the Indiana game, we were focused the whole game. We had incredible energy. We’re going to have to bring that in every game from now on.”
Regular-season success doesn’t always translate to postseason play, as we seem to be reminded year after year during the NCAA tournament. Just last season, Minnesota’s underwhelming 6-12 Big Ten record did little to stop the Gophers from advancing to the NIT championship. Still, the pressures of that postseason tournament are not the same as the NCAA tournament, which Minnesota appears to be a lock for this year. But it goes to show that even a slumping team can turn things around in the postseason.
The Gophers are hoping that’s the case once again. The regular season that once had so much promise faded into yet another year of mediocrity. But Mbakwe said the same thing Wednesday that he’s preached all year, that the Gophers can play with any team in the country.
His teammates agree.
“The Big Ten tournament, it’s a whole new season. Anything can happen,” senior Rodney Williams said. “We’re still really confident. We’re not worried about the regular season anymore. There’s nothing we can do about that. This is a new season. Anybody can win it, so we’ve just got to go in there with the mindset that we’re going to win it.”
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