Gophers feeling the pressure in build-up to tourney match-up with UCLA
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MINNEAPOLIS -- For a moment, the roller coaster of a season the Gophers have gone through doesn't matter.
Gone is the burden of missing two consecutive NCAA tournaments. Instead of another March spent in the NIT or facing the harsh reality of an early off-season, the Gophers are back in the Big Dance with a chance to do something they haven't done since 1997 -- win an NCAA tournament game.
"There's a lot of relief," Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe said after practice Tuesday. "We were nervous just waiting for our name to get called. We're excited for another opportunity."
That relief could be felt when the players spoke to reporters on the day before they depart for Austin, Texas, where they will await their opening match-up with No. 6-seed UCLA on Friday. There was an obvious sense of confidence and excitement, but it was contained, muted by the knowledge that a win is necessary to avoid branding a season loaded with high expectations as a failure.
The Gophers realize they have another opportunity to quiet the increasing negativity that has swarmed in around the program, but this is the last one they will get.
"I'm liking what I'm seeing," coach Tubby Smith. "I'm seeing a renewed spirit, a renewed energy. That's kind of got me happier. So it makes it more fun.
While the Gophers were never truly on the tournament bubble, they aren't exactly surging into Austin with momentum. Knocked out of the Big Ten tournament's opening round last week by Illinois' last-second shot, the Gophers enter with losses in 11 of their last 16 games.
Their late-season slide, marred by turnovers, inconsistent shooting and a fluctuating intensity, resulted in the once-No. 8 ranked Gophers falling to the 11th seed in the South regional.
The wild range of emotions the team has gone through has worn on the players, coaches and fans alike, but the Gophers are trying to push regrets from the last two rocky months to the side.
"It's not easy, especially when there's disappointment of not reaching your potential. It just takes a lot of energy out of you, a coach, a player, anyone," Smith said.
"If you do the things you have to, you'll get this second opportunity, and we've got this opportunity to play in postseason, so I've been energized. Hopefully (the players) sensed it and will pick up their intensity as well."
While it's not the high seed they were once thought to be headed for, they have ended up with arguably a more preferable match-up than the majority of possibilities they were being targeted for in recent weeks.
The Gophers have had plenty of issues with consistency, but their grinding defense, which has weathered a brutal Big Ten schedule, could counter well with UCLA's high-powered, transition style offense.
With a small, but talented roster, UCLA traversed its way to a 25-9 overall record and the Pac-12 regular season title. However, the Bruins suffered a blow in semi-finals of the Pac-12 tournament last Friday when second-leading scorer Jordan Adams broke his right foot in the game's final seconds. Without Adams, UCLA lost 78-69 to Oregon in the championship game one day later.
Although star freshman Shabazz Muhammad remains the Bruins' primary offensive source, Adams' absence leaves UCLA with only seven players who log minutes with regularity.
In light of those circumstances, the Gophers find themselves as one of only two low-seeds, along with No. 9 Missouri, favored by Las Vegas bettors in their first round games. The Gophers currently stand as three point favorites to defeat the Bruins.
Now the Gophers' task is to live up to those expectations, as has been their ongoing battle all season.
There is no preventing one undesirable storyline from hanging over the outcome of Friday's game. With Smith facing an ever-increasing firestorm of criticism from portions of the fan base, the six-year "U" coach may be playing for his future with program.
The players clearly hear their coach's fate being discussed, but their focus has been to filter out the excess negativity that has built up.
"I don't think about it at all. We're playing for each other," guard Andre Hollins said without hesitating. "The pressure is already there. From now on, there's a possibility that this could be our last game. That's all the pressure that we need. We don't need to add more pressure to it. I'm just excited and ready to play."
Freshman guard Wally Ellenson, who has been sidelined for the last week by flu symptoms, is expected to make the trip to Austin. Ellenson stayed back in Minneapolis when the Gophers traveled to Chicago for the Big Ten tournament. Ellenson has played in only three of his team's last nine games, logging 13 total minutes.