Gophers searching for a 'sense of urgency' in season's final stretch
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Losses in eight of their last 11 games have left the Gophers in a dangerous position, grasping for at least a shred of momentum with just four games remaining before the Big Ten tournament.
The Gophers are back at Williams Arena, set to host No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday, after suffering through a pair of disheartening routs at Iowa and Ohio State. The way both of those games transpired -- arguably the Gophers' ugliest losses of the year -- have taken a bad situation and turned it into one that could end up fully derailing their season.
Graced with a five-day break after a 71-45 loss in Columbus, Ohio, the Gophers have spent their time desperately trying to regroup and find a solution for a possible turnaround.
In both of their most recent losses, the Gophers were lacking aggression and resiliency for long stretches, eventually resulting in defeats of 21 and 26 points. They have taken over the Big Ten's turnover title after coughing up the ball a total of 41 times in the last two games. They also shot a combined 32.6% from the floor (31-of-95) in that span.
Coach Tubby Smith has preached to his team that the mental breakdowns have to be stopped right away in order to reverse this season's downward direction.
"You've got to be upset at yourself ... And you have to use (those losses) as motivation," Smith said following an afternoon shootaround session on Monday. "I would hope that they'd be angry and eager to come back and say, "That's not us." But also you have to keep your emotions in check and execute the fundamentals and trust one another. I would hope they'd come out angry and play with a real sense of urgency."
Executing the fundamentals has been a task the Gophers have had extensive difficulty clinging on to consistently in game situations.
With an RPI that has remained in the nation's Top-20, currently No. 17, and the top strength of schedule rating, it would in all likelihood take a continued full-out collapse in the season's final two weeks for the Gophers to be considered an NCAA tournament bubble team.
But the losing slump they have been stuck in for the last month has delivered a beating to the Gophers' psyche. They have become a team in search of any possible spark it can find to serve as a rebuilding point.
For the first time this season, the Gophers had a sports psychologist talk with the team over the weekend in an attempt to better arm the players for the mental grind that this season has become.
Smith would not give specifics about the measures the team has taken to help to keep the team positive and focused.
"We've done a few things," Smith said. "Hopefully they will payoff. We'll see how they respond. I am not going to comment about it."
As Smith readily admits, the Gophers have been a markedly tough team to gauge in the last few weeks. Their come-from-behind overtime defeat of Wisconsin on Feb. 14 appeared at the time to hold the potential to be a key rallying point entering the season's final weeks. Smith saw the energy and enthusiasm from that win carry over into practice.
However, two games later the 61-year-old coach was left baffled about how flat his team looked in the losses to Iowa and Ohio State.
One of the primary questions entering Tuesday's game is in what state of mind will the Gophers be in, and can they show the level of fight that has been glaringly absent in the last two games?
The players admit the mood around the team has been a bit volatile lately, but they feel their extended layoff between games has aided in recharging morale.
"The locker room kind of got a little poor after the Iowa and Ohio State games," freshman guard Wally Ellenson said. "People were really down, but now our team is coming back together and it's something neat to see and we're just going to have to see how we do against Indiana."
It's all talk until it translates to on-court results. Whether or not the Gophers can rediscover a needed mental edge will be heavily tested against the top-ranked Hoosiers.
When the Gophers last met Indiana back on Jan. 12, they were ranked eighth in the country and in the midst of an impressive 15-1 start to the season. Smith's crew clawed back from a 23-point deficit to fall just shy of completing the comeback, but they exited with a loss that shifted the team in the wrong direction.
Now the Gophers face Indiana with an opportunity, regardless of their status as heavy underdogs, to reverse back the other way.
Minnesota has three wins all-time (3-18) against No. 1 ranked teams, with their last victory coming on Jan. 26, 1989 at Illinois' expense. It would take possibly the biggest upset in Smith's six-year tenure to add a fourth win to that list.
The Gophers are in a spot where they simply have to show they can be competitive again, especially in big games. The wins obviously have to start coming again for this team to salvage its season, but even a close loss could be the safety valve needed to prevent another deadly blow to its fragile state
"We've had a couple losses here that shouldn't have happened," sophomore guard Andre Hollins said. "We're in a slump right now. It's one of those things that we have to fix now. There's not much more I can say about it."