Notebook: UCLA sticking to unexpected 'underdog' role against Gophers
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AUSTIN, Texas -- It may be a surprise given the Gophers' late-season struggles, but coach Tubby Smith's squad remains a three-point favorite on the eve of its face-off with No. 6 seed UCLA in the NCAA's Round of 64 on Friday.
Despite being the 11th seed in the South region, the Gophers have been a trendy upset pick by experts and fans alike.
To that, UCLA says to keep it coming.
The PAC-12 regular season champion Bruins have been overshadowed by questions of what their identity is now that they are without their second-leading scorer, Jordan Adams, who broke his foot in the PAC-12 tournament semi-finals last week.
But the fact the Gophers, losers of 11 of their last 16 games, are being pegged to have the slight edge on Friday has resulted in UCLA trying to take on an unexpected underdog role.
In the lead-up to their showdown with the Gophers, Ben Howland, the Bruins' gruff and embattled 10-year head coach, posted quotes from the media and other critics of the program on the wall of the Bruins' locker room. It was an attempt, which Howland labeled as "purely motivation," to get his to team to fight back from the perceived undercutting.
"I know Coach Howland definitely feels that way," senior guard Larry Drew II said at UCLA's media session Thursday afternoon. "He definitely feels like just from the seeding to us being the underdogs even with the higher seed, he definitely feels like we have something to prove out there."
It makes for an intriguing storyline in a game between two teams that sit a loss away from falling well below the lofty expectations that were lauded on them before and during the season.
The Gophers, once ranked No. 8 in the country after a 15-1 start, have become a frustrating and puzzlingly case of inconsistencies. An 8-10 record in the Big Ten and an abrupt exit against Illinois in the initial round of the conference tournament have caused a cloud of criticism and skepticism to follow the Gophers into their first NCAA tournament appearance in three years.
Minnesota is not only playing for its first tournament win since its now invalid run to the Final Four in 1997, but possibly also for Smith's job.
"There are no excuses," Smith said. "We still have a very experienced team and I thought that we would be better in conference play, but we also had some close games and games that we just didn't do a good job of taking care of the basketball ... But again, we did enough, I think, based on us being here to warrant us being in the tournament."
What to do about the bench?
With Jordan Adams no longer an option, UCLA will have only seven players in its rotation.
Headlined by freshman Shabazz Muhammad (17.8 ppg), the Bruins score on average 74.7 points per game - nearly full 10 points higher than the Gophers' average during the Big Ten season.
But with the Gophers' tendency to prefer a physical style of play, the Bruins' shortened lineup offers an area that could be taken advantage of.
The Gophers typically roll out around 10 guys, but the effectiveness of their reserves has fluctuated drastically. Although it's assumed Smith won't stray too far from that formula in trying to wear out UCLA, he didn't appear certain of how exactly he plans to juggle his starting lineup and bench.
"I've tried a little bit of everything, haven't I? I mean, it's been up and down," Smith said. "We have tried to go with a deep bench. We haven't been productive. We have gone with a short bench and haven't been productive. It's been inconsistent."
"We have played a lot of guys and it's paid off. And we played a few guys in some games and it's paid off, and vice versa. So to answer your question, have I found (a preference)? No. A hell of a thing to be saying right now, isn't it."
Eventually countering with an abbreviated lineup of their own may be a likely scenario for the Gophers. Minnesota was at its best against Illinois in the Big Ten tourney when Smith went with only one sub off the bench during the entirety of the second half.
Waiting it out
The Gophers have had to play the waiting game since their arrival in Austin on Wednesday.
Pegged with the latest practice time Thursday (6:40 p.m. CT) and the last game on Friday (9 p.m.), the Gophers have been dealing with tiring schedules filled with extended lulls spent sitting around.
"Long," Trevor Mbakwe quickly responded like when asked how the days have been in the build-up to their tourney appearance. "Especially today sitting around at the hotel watching the other games. We really just want to have the chance to play ... We're all anxious and ready to get the show going."
When the Gophers addressed the media immediately after their tournament selection on Sunday, the reaction from guard Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams was notably understated. The mood around the players still seemed slightly subdued on Tuesday when the Gophers held availability before their departure for Austin.
But in the locker room prior to practice on Thursday, the edge of tension that had been present before seemed to have dissipated to a degree.
"It's definitely loosened up," forward Rodney Williams said. "There was some leftover tension there (from Selection Sunday), because you were a little nervous not knowing where you were going ... Now I definitely think the tension is gone from everybody ... We know what to expect."
• The number of Gophers fans spotted in Austin so far has been minimal. Only a few maroon and gold clad spectators were in the stands for the Gophers' open practice at the Frank Erwin Center Thursday. KSTP's Darren Wolfson tweeted that Minnesota has sold "just shy of 350 tickets" of their 550 ticket allotment. The final total of "U" fans at Friday's game could surpass that, with fans going through other avenues to procure tickets, but their presence isn't expected to be large.
• The Gophers had an uninvited visitor at their evening practice.
A bat, one of the thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats that inhabit the Austin, found its way into the arena and circled around the court, occasionally diving down towards the players and coaches.
Guard Andre Hollins, for one, was not excited about this. In a humorous scene, Hollins ran away every time the bat neared him, and periodically looked up disconcertingly at the ceiling during practice.
"I don't mess with bats," said Hollins, his usually present smile gone.
• Texas football coach Mack Brown stopped by the Gophers' practice on Wednesday at the Longhorns' basketball facility. Before Brown, who led Texas to the 2005 BCS National Championship, gave a brief speech to the team, it took Andre Hollins a few minutes to realize who it was.
"It was pretty cool," Hollins said. "I didn't recognize him at first. I was like, 'Man, I've seen him before on TV.' He give a really good speech. It was great motivation."