MINNEAPOLIS — For the second straight year, the Minnesota men’s basketball team has watched its NCAA tournament hopes fade with a late-season skid. For this year’s squad, a loss Saturday at Northwestern was perhaps the game that burst the Gophers’ bubble, so to speak.
Minnesota has just four regular-season games remaining, beginning Wednesday when it hosts Michigan State. The Gophers have now lost three straight and five of their last seven, something that coach Tubby Smith says is taking its toll mentally.
“I’ve been in it a long time, but certainly losses stick with you longer. You remember every loss and I’ve had my share in the last few years,” Smith said. “It wears on you. It ages you quicker than you want.”
Last season, Minnesota began the year with a 16-4 record but went on to lose 10 of its last 11 games and missed out on the NCAA tournament. The Gophers’ current skid isn’t quite as dramatic, but they’re moving in the wrong direction. Still, despite playing without injured star senior Trevor Mbakwe, Smith’s team has a chance to reach 20 wins and finish at .500 in the Big Ten.
To do that, however, they’ll have to knock off three ranked teams, including the sixth-ranked Spartans.
“We still have hope. We still have an opportunity,” Smith said. “We talked about that nobody can start over new, but you can start a new ending. So we need to start a new ending and hopefully we can build on that.”
Minnesota’s current three-game losing streak included a 68-61 overtime loss at home to rival Wisconsin and a 78-68 loss to Ohio State that saw the Buckeyes go on a 20-0 run in the first half.
Smith said it was tough to watch film of Saturday’s 64-53 loss to Northwestern in which the Gophers committed 18 turnovers. In the midst of the current three-game skid, Smith said practice has intensified as his team tries to get back on track.
“For me personally as a coach, sometimes you have to understand the psyche of your team,” Smith said. “I like that they are being a little more chippy, a little more aggressive, a little more intense. They don’t like losing. Nobody likes losing. So we try to make it a little more competitive in practice and make sure we keep that spirit of competitiveness going.”
The Gophers have faced some of the conference’s best players over the last three games, including Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor, Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger and Northwestern senior John Shurna. But Wednesday’s game features perhaps the conference’s best player in senior Draymond Green.
Green currently leads the Big Ten with 10.5 rebounds per game and is eighth in scoring with 15.4 points per game. Sophomore guard Keith Appling has chipped in 12.0 points and 3.8 assists per game, while Branden Dawson is scoring 8.9 points and pulling down 5.0 boards per game for No. 6 Michigan State.
“Draymond Green is probably the leading candidate for Player of the Year in the Big Ten. They’ve got good balance throughout their lineup,” Smith said. “They can beat you in many different ways. They can push the ball up the court. They can do some good things in their secondary. They are probably the best team in this league as far as their fast-break and their secondary. They score a lot of points. If you’re not back in transition, a guy like Keith Appling and others will burn you.”
The Gophers have been competitive in most of their Big Ten games this year. Their previous meeting against the Spartans was not one of them, as Michigan State handed Minnesota a 68-52 loss in East Lansing last month.
While the Gophers’ NCAA tournament hopes remain slim, an upset victory over No. 6 Michigan State on Wednesday could perhaps help Minnesota cling on for dear life.
“It’s a pretty important game for us,” Smith said. “If we can get the win tomorrow it would be a major feather in our hat and do a lot for our psyche.”