Smith, Minnesota strive to reduce turnovers
MINNEAPOLIS — After losing two straight games against highly ranked opponents, the Minnesota Golden Gophers have identified a common denominator: too many turnovers.
Minnesota trailed Indiana by 23 at halftime before a second-half surge fell just short. In that game at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, the Gophers turned the ball over 17 times. A few days later against No. 5 Michigan, Minnesota had 15 turnovers while taking the ball away 11 times. The Wolverines converted those 15 Gophers turnovers into 24 points the other way en route to an 83-75 win at Williams Arena.
If the Gophers hope to stop their losing streak Wednesday against Northwestern, they'll have to do a better job of taking care of the ball.
"We just can't continue to beat ourselves," said Minnesota senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who had a double-double in the loss to Michigan. "We're already playing against a tough opponent as it is. We can't play against ourselves, too. I think those were good tests for us. We definitely needed it going forward."
Heading into Wednesday's game in Evanston, No. 12 Minnesota is averaging 14.7 turnovers per game, the most among all Big Ten teams. Northwestern, meanwhile, gives the ball away just 10.9 times per game. The Wildcats are also among the conference's top teams in assist/turnover ration (1.4).
When these same two teams met earlier this month in Minneapolis, the Gophers committed 15 turnovers in their 69-51 win. Minnesota led after a low-scoring first half by a 17-14 margin, a half plagued in part by turnovers.
Winning on the road in the Big Ten is tough enough. Lose the turnover battle, and it's nearly impossible.
"You can't turn the ball over, especially in conference play," said Gophers sophomore guard Andre Hollins. "Every possession matters. We've just been beating ourselves these past two games. … That's what it's going to boil down to, us growing up and maturing as a team and limiting our turnovers and not just giving the other team points."
Aside from taking care of the ball, Minnesota will also need more production from its bench. While guard Julian Welch scored eight points in the loss to Michigan, the rest of the bench scored a combined four points. In their road game against Illinois earlier this month, the Gophers won despite scoring a single point off the bench.
Minnesota's reserves have been guilty of turning the ball over, too. Against Michigan, the Gophers' bench had nearly as many turnovers (seven) as the starters (eight).
"I was concerned that we didn't get more production from the bench in that game," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said of the Michigan loss. "I thought if we got better production from the bench, it might have been a different outcome. But even they were turning it over.
"It was just one of those games."
Minnesota can't afford one of those games again Wednesday. The Gophers' top players have to take care of the ball better. Senior forward Rodney Williams turned the ball over four times against Michigan. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins had nine total turnovers in the Indiana loss.
"It's a veteran team that still has to learn how to handle the ball," Smith said. "I'm very surprised. It's disappointing."
While the Gophers' three losses this season have come against tough competition, the last two games have exposed a weakness for Minnesota. Force the Gophers to turn the ball over, and you have a chance.
Minnesota learned that about itself the hard way. Now it's up to the Gophers to bounce back from those two losses and learn from their mistakes — and it starts by hanging onto the basketball.
"There's never a good loss," Smith said. "I know they better learn from it. I know I've learned some things from it, and we've tried to pass it on to them. We'll see how they respond."
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