Sunday’s close call may be good for Gophers

MINNEAPOLIS — In the Gophers locker room after Sunday’s 72-57 win, a fantastic kind of transformation took place. A game that had once been a nine-point deficit to an inferior opponent, one that came down to its final minutes for a team attempting to prove itself this year as different, better, was suddenly a strategic maneuver.

The Gophers needed a game like this win over Richmond, Andre Hollins said. It was a good test, according to Trevor Mbakwe, one that showed the team’s character. It may even have kept the Gophers from being too cocky, Rodney Williams opined. Each leaned back in his locker. Each smiled. Each looked, at moments, like the cat that ate the canary, a little too pleased after a game that was a little too close.

And their point, about this game being so necessary, about needing a test now? Well, it was at least somewhat valid, you’d think. To cruise into the Bahamas for a Thursday game against Duke having not yet been challenged might not be the optimal circumstances, especially for a Gophers team that won its first three games by 36, 26 and 29 points, respectively. So a 15-point win that seemed much closer — maybe not the worst thing in the world.

“We needed something to go into the Duke game with,” Rodney Williams said. “I think that if we would have won this game like we’ve been winning . . . I don’t think it would have been the same.  . . . For us to be able to fight back and get the W by the amount of points that we did, that shows that you know we’re a pretty poised team.”

So yes, it was only Richmond, but the Gophers were riding high, and it’s easy to look at this one and credit some masterfully designed schedule. It’s also possible to look at the schedule in another way, too: that the team looked past this game to the Duke game just four days away. That would have been the excuse in a loss, no doubt, and it warranted mention even after the win.

Those are the positives of scraping by, of a game in which the Gophers separated themselves only late in the second half. But it isn’t quite right to say that this is all just peachy, that this win being so close is absolutely fine. Not when players say things like that “nice trip to the Bahamas” that’s coming up, when they get wide-eyed at the mention of playing Duke, even when they say with certainty that they can beat Duke. It’s the big blue elephant in the room, this uncertainty of what’s the best way to treat the upcoming game.

On one hand, there’s Williams, talking the big talk: “I think it would mean a lot for this program. You know, we know that we’re capable of going out there and beating Duke.”

And then, conversely, there’s Andre Hollins, whose eyes lit up at the mere mention of the D-word: “That’s some people’s dream to play Duke, to play against one of the greatest coaches of all time in Coach K. You know, they’re always in contention of winning the championship, making it far into the tournament, so it’s going to be a great game. It’s exciting.”

Somewhere in the middle lies the best takeaway. Yes, beating Richmond, being tested — that’s unquestionably good. But to say you know you can beat Duke, that to do so would mean a lot for the program is a giant leap. And to treat Mike Krzyzewski and his Blue Devils as if they’re on some sort of vaunted basketball pedestal is also a step in the wrong direction.

The proper takeaway from Sunday’s win, the best way to look forward, would be this: We won, and we’re proud we came back. We’re looking forward to the test that Duke will bring, and we know it’s a huge one, but we think we’re prepared as best is possible.

And that’s pretty close to what Tubby Smith actually said. Asked if he felt like his team was ready for Duke, the coach was resolute in his response:

“No, not after this performance. But we got the win. Obviously we have to go back and see where we’re at. I expect they will be ready when we play them.”

Smith has done this before. He’s been to big tournaments, played opponents who on paper trump his team. He knows what to say and what to look for, and in the coming days, he’ll certainly pass that message along to his team. Fortunately for him, no matter how they’re treating this win or the upcoming game mentally, the Gophers at least know what they need to address.

They know they turned the ball over too much, 19 times to Richmond’s 11. They know that even when they adjusted, the turnovers kept coming. But they also know they’re good in transition, and they’re learning how to use that more and more to their advantage. They like their defense, and they like it a lot. They recognized that they came out flat on Sunday and that they have a history of doing so. It’s a history they don’t care to repeat, not in the Bahamas against quality opponents, and not for the rest of the season.

So maybe this Duke game is hard to grapple with mentally. Maybe it’s something players think about too much, even a game that caused them to look past this opponent. But they shouldn’t let what’s looming get in the way of what’s freshest in their minds. There were plenty of lessons Sunday night, and the claims that a close game was helpful are not at all off base. If they can remember all of that and build from it, the Gophers will be in fighting shape.

And Thursday will be a fight.

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