Caught in four-game skid, Gophers desperate to get their 'psyche back'
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Something has to give.
At least that is what the Gophers are trying to assure themselves of as they continue their desperate search for a spark to reignite their currently stalled season.
"We need to get our psyche back," coach Tubby Smith said.
Smith's simple statement sums up what has happened to the Gophers in the course of two weeks. Gone is the mental edge and resilient play that contributed to marking Smith's team as a Big Ten title contender at the onset of conference play.
It has been a deflating stretch, to put it a lightly, for a team bestowed with national attention and praise after following up a 15-1 start with three solid Big Ten victories. Four straight conference losses, most recently a stinging last-minute defeat at Wisconsin, have taken that once rosy outlook and covered it with caution tape.
A trip to Northwestern was hoped to be the cure that would refresh the Gophers after losses in grueling back-to-back games against top-5 ranked teams Indiana and Michigan. Instead, they left Evanston disillusioned with a seven-point defeat littered set in motion by a habitual turnover woes and uninspired play down the stretch.
Though on the road for the third time in four games, the Gophers sought salvation in a match-up with Wisconsin - a team also grasping for stability in a Big Ten season that has yet to reach its midpoint.
But again, they were denied relief. While the Gophers showed renewed life in Madison, the result was the same as Wisconsin outlasted them in a less-than-pretty 45-44 loss thanks to a long jumper from Traevon Jackson with less than three seconds to go. It was a cruel way to prolong a situation that if not addressed soon could have permanent ramifications on the Gophers' postseason picture.
At 3-4 in the conference, the Gophers find themselves in the same spot they were a year ago. With forward Trevor Mbakwe out with an ACL injury and a starting lineup searching for its identity, they would go on to win just three more games in the regular season. That late collapse, the program's second in as many years, kept the Gophers again on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
The outlook for the Gophers hasn't reached that level of dire straits yet, but they are well aware the season can't go on like this. Aspirations of winning the Big Ten title are mostly out of reach, but even a respectable five to seven-win finish in their final 11 games should be enough to propel them into March.
Mbakwe has been through the agony of a season gone dreadfully awry before, as have all but two players on the Gophers' roster. Those memories have resurfaced as of late, but Mbakwe insists those experiences will play a role in helping to keep this year's team from repeating the past.
"None of us want to relive that," the senior forward said. "I think this stretch is different, because of the competition. We'll be fine ... We all still believe. We still think we're one of the best teams in the country. Now we have to start playing that way."
If there was any solace to be taken from the loss at Wisconsin it was the Gophers' much-needed adjustments in holding on to the ball. Turnovers have been their ongoing downfall, averaging a conference-worst 14.4 per game. But against the Badgers they committed only nine, marking the first time in seven Big Ten games that their turnover number has been lower than 14.
The improvement was noticeable, though when paired with shooting inconsistencies in the starting lineup - Rodney Williams, Joe Coleman and Austin Hollins were a combined 2-for-22 from the floor - it ultimately didn't help produce a victory. It was, however, the step forward the Gophers have to keep taking.
Their best chance jumpstarting their season awaits them on Tuesday. A return to Williams Arena to face 11-10 Nebraska starts a six-game stretch in which they will face an opponent ranked ninth or lower in the Big Ten four times.
We just have to get a win ... There's no magic to it," Smith said. "It's a matter of cutting back on mistakes, and it's getting guys to make sure they believe in what we're doing, trust one other, play for each other.
"What happens is guys try to do too much. You think 'I've got to do more.' Actually, you have to do less, so we can do more. That's what we have to get them to understand at this juncture."
• Mbakwe practiced again Monday with a wrap over his injured right wrist, which he retweaked in the final minutes at Wisconsin on Saturday. Mbakwe said the pain was hard to practice with on Sunday, but he "didn't really mind it as much" the next day. He will likely keep his wrist protected in Tuesday's game, but he ensured it would not sideline him.
• Junior captain and the Gophers' third-leading scorer Austin Hollins is stuck in a two-game shooting slump. He is 2-of-15 from the floor in that period, including a 1-of-10 struggle against Wisconsin. Hollins, in his typical level-headed manner, acknowledged that those scoring issues have to change.
"I have to be more aggressive, more vocal," Hollins said. "It didn't help that I wasn't hitting any shots (vs Wisconsin)."