Upset takes pressure off Smith, Gophers

MINNEAPOLIS — Less than 24 hours after the Gophers men’s basketball team knocked off top-ranked Indiana, the University of Minnesota campus was still abuzz in the excitement of Tuesday night’s victory. So much so that Gophers coach Tubby Smith called an impromptu meeting with the media to further dissect his team’s upset over the Hoosiers.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway: The win was nice and provides a short-term morale boost, but Smith knows it only means so much in the big picture.
“I think it’s one game. Each team is different in their personality and their makeup,” Smith said Wednesday. “You can’t dwell on it, but you have to keep it in your memory bank and bring out those experiences. … To put it in perspective, it’s not like we were playing for the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten. That’s what I have to let our players know.”
Indeed, even with Tuesday’s upset victory, the Gophers are still just 7-8 in the Big Ten with three games remaining. In early January, Minnesota was ranked No. 8 in the nation before hitting a skid. The Gophers entered their game against the Hoosiers unranked in both major polls.
Minnesota thought it had a win that might jumpstart its season late last month when it beat rival Wisconsin. After upending the No. 20 Badgers in overtime at Williams Arena, the Gophers — Smith included — danced in the locker room in celebration. There was hope that perhaps a win like that might end an extended slump.
Instead, the Gophers went on to lose their next two games against Iowa and Ohio State by a combined 47 points. Smith (who did not do a postgame dance Tuesday) knows that same thing can’t happen after the Indiana win.
“We had a good win against Wisconsin, and we didn’t respond very well,” Smith said. “I’m just concerned with never getting too high, never getting too low, never getting too discouraged. Just make sure you keep balance in your life, and that’s what we try to preach to our players.”
Before Tuesday’s win, there were some Gophers fans calling for the end of the Tubby Smith era in Minnesota. In his first five seasons as coach, Smith failed to finish above .500 in the Big Ten and did not win an NCAA Tournament game. In fact, the Gophers made it to the tournament just twice in those five seasons. Last year, Minnesota made it to the NIT championship game after missing out on postseason play the year before.
During the past few months, Smith’s seat got a bit hotter as the Gophers lost eight of 11 games following their 15-1 start to the season. The way Minnesota lost its last two games certainly had fans irked and had some wanting a change.
At least for a few days, the Indiana win might silence some of those critics.
“I just want to thank those folks that have stayed focused and committed,” Smith said. “Somebody asked me before (about) all the negative publicity and stuff. I’m too old to even worry about that. I’m pretty secure in my skin and who I am, so I don’t really pay much attention to it, just so you guys know.”
There’s no denying, however, that the win made at least a temporary statement in the college basketball world. It also helped that the game was broadcast on ESPN, which means plenty of casual fans across the nation were able to see Minnesota take down the country’s top-ranked team.
“It helps in a lot of ways — the morale of the team, it helps me in the belief that, hey, I know we can do it, fellas,” Smith said. “I never really lost belief. It’s encouraging for our fan base as well as other things. It helps in recruiting.”
Many — the 61-year-old Smith included — will watch to see how the Gophers respond to their first win over a No. 1 team since beating top-ranked Illinois in 1989. Tuesday night, though, Minnesota’s players reveled in the victory as fans stormed the court for the first time in a long time.
One day later, Smith was still very much proud of his players. But the Gophers’ sixth-year coach knows there’s still work left to do.
“I thought the spirit of last night was a healthy experience for everyone that was at the Barn and everyone that watched the game,” Smith said. “There’s always a lesson to be learned from wins and losses, but it helps when it’s a win last night to galvanize the fans and student body.
“We know we’re still growing the program. We know there are still significant things that need to be done for us to be as competitive as everybody wants us to be.”


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