Gophers slide feels like last year all over again
MINNEAPOLIS — University of Minnesota freshman guard Joe Coleman experienced just one losing streak while playing for Hopkins High School.
It lasted all of two games.
Coleman and the Gophers are currently in the midst of a four-game losing skid to start Big Ten play. Stretching back to last season, it's been 10 straight conference losses for Minnesota.
"I don't like losing, that's for sure," Coleman said Sunday after Minnesota lost to Purdue at home. "We didn't do that too often at Hopkins. It's definitely different. But at the same time, we did lose at Hopkins, so I know how it feels. You've just got to learn from it."
The Gophers' last Big Ten win came back on Feb. 13, 2011, when they defeated Iowa 62-45 on the road. That victory snapped a four-game losing streak but was followed by six straight losses to close out the season. Because of its skid in Big Ten play, Minnesota missed out on the postseason despite a 16-4 start.
It's starting to look like déjà vu in Dinkytown, as the Gophers started the year with a 12-1 record before dropping their first four Big Ten games.
"It feels a little similar, just for the simple fact that we're still on that losing streak from last year in the Big Ten," said junior forward Rodney Williams, Minnesota's leading scorer (10.4 points per game) and rebounder (5.9 rpg). "What I remember from last year, it didn't even really feel too real because we'll be winning the games and within the last minute and a half, our lead's gone and we're down and we're trying to fight back. After a while, you couldn't even get mad anymore because it didn't feel real at all because nobody was used to losing that many games in a row."
Indeed, several of the Gophers' conference losses last season were close ones. They lost by three points to Ohio State, Indiana and Penn State (twice), and by five points against Michigan State. This year, three of Minnesota's four losses in Big Ten play this year were single-digit defeats. The Gophers hung tough on the road with Illinois before losing 81-72 in double overtime. A few days later, they lost to then-No. 16 Michigan 61-56 in Ann Arbor.
Last Wednesday, Minnesota rallied at home against Iowa but ultimately came up short in a 64-62 loss. Only Sunday's 79-66 loss to Purdue at Williams Arena was truly one-sided.
Regardless of how close each loss has been, the Gophers are now 0-4 in the Big Ten and are hoping to avoid getting stuck in a rut mentally.
"I look back on the two games we lost on the road. If we pull out one of those wins or win them both, our psyche is a little bit better. But we didn't," said Gophers head coach Tubby Smith. "That's what happens to teams that are not really veteran teams. For me, I've never experienced it and a lot of these guys never experienced it at all except the guys that were here from last year."
If there's any consolation to Minnesota's slow start against conference teams, it's that it indeed is the start of the Big Ten season. Last year's freefall came at the end of the year and prevented the Gophers from any postseason play.
Minnesota still has 14 games remaining, starting Thursday on the road against a tough Indiana squad.
"I think right now, that's the only difference (from last year). We have a lot of time to turn things around, and we will. It's just a matter of time," Williams said. "This game will be a big confidence boost for us if we go out there, play hard and get a ‘W.'"
The Hoosiers are 15-1 and currently ranked in the top 10 in both major polls, with their only loss coming on the road against Michigan State. Indiana averages 82.4 points per game, tops in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers also knock down 3-pointers at a 47.6 percent clip, easily the best in the conference. Minnesota, meanwhile, is dead last in the Big Ten in defending the three — opponents are hitting at 37.5 percent from downtown against the Gophers — so Smiths' squad will have its hands full Thursday.
But if Minnesota can somehow escape Bloomington with a win to snap its Big Ten skid, it could do wonders mentally for the Gophers.
"Obviously it's something that we have to overcome," Smith said. "It becomes tougher psychologically when it continues. So we've got to figure out a way."