Sandell: Big Ten tourney gives 'U' final shot at regaining momentum
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Although clichéd, the start of the Big Ten tournament and postseason play allows teams a fresh start.
And after a Big Ten season peppered with distinct triumphs and a prolonged series of puzzling losses, the Gophers are in a position to benefit from a clean slate.
In their first round match-up with No. 8-seed Illinois Thursday at Chicago's United Center, the Gophers have one final chance to regain a needed level of stability and leave a positive impression on the NCAA tournament selection committee.
If the Gophers are to live up to the lofty expectations created in response to their experienced returning roster and 15-1 start to season, the sustained high-level of play that has periodically eluded them has to be found now.
It is a fact that is not lost on the Gophers, especially their core seniors Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams.
Following a dispiriting 16-point loss at Purdue in their regular season finale last Saturday, their 10th loss in 15 games, Mbakwe and Williams had a blunt and honest conversation.
"I just told him this is it for us. Being hometown kids, we know how much it means to be able to walk around and people be proud of you," Mbakwe said after practice Wednesday.
"Those last two games were disappointments for us. The Purdue game was pretty embarrassing, just losing by (16) to a team we felt like we should have beat ... We have to take our games to the next level."
While it hasn't been maintained, the Gophers have shown their potential to be a dangerous threat in sporadic doses. They have also endlessly frustrated themselves and onlookers with their up and down trajectory.
The loss at Purdue, which was preceded by a loss to 10th place Nebraska, stripped the Gophers of any momentum gained from a refreshingly strong upset of No. 1-ranked Indiana. It only added to what has been a baffling couple of months.
Those defeats dropped them to their third consecutive losing conference season (8-10), and plunged them into the ninth seed in the Big Ten tourney.
But unlike their past two seasons, both of which ended with the Gophers sitting on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, they have done enough to make a bid in the Big Dance appear to be a near-lock.
Signature wins against Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin and a notably healthy 23rd ranked RPI have served to bolster their resume, despite their obvious shortcomings.
However, without a postseason transformation the Gophers know their season will be cut off prematurely.
"We all have limitations," Smith said. "At this point in time you have to overachieve, and if (the players) overachieve then we'll have a good run."
The Gophers aren't in unfamiliar territory. Last season, they stumbled into Indianapolis, site of the 2012 Big Ten tourney, after a closing 1-6 slide left them with a 6-12 conference record.
The Gophers had been mostly written off, but it was there that they began to play their best basketball of the season. A spirited two-game showing in Indy gave way to a run to the NIT championship -- a run that saw the rise of guard Andre Hollins and the bulk of the team's current starting lineup.
Now they face the need to undergo a similar late-season reemergence, but this time it has the possibility of taking place on a grander stage.
Their opportunity to take that route begins with Illinois.
After splitting their season series, the Gophers and the Illini meet for the third time in arguably the most intriguing and hard to predict first round game of the tournament. When the two teams first met, they were both ranked among the nation's top-15 (Minnesota - No. 8; Illinois - No. 12). Two months later, each has undergone its share of struggles that resulted in identical Big Ten records.
The Gophers muscled to an 84-67 victory in their initial meeting at Illinois. The Illini countered at Williams Arena one month later. Taking advantage of an errant pass by Mbakwe with less than 80 seconds remaining and a clutch 3-pointer from Tracy Abrams. Illinois stunned their opponent in a 57-53 defeat.
The Gophers, who were without Williams, still carry the disappointment from that loss - one of several winnable games they felt they let slip away.
"We owe Illinois," Hollins said.
The start of the postseason has a "now or never" type feel for the Gophers.
Having seen his team go repeatedly go through tumultuous swings in momentum, Smith, however, has been careful in how he has used "do or die" ultimatums during the build-up to postseason play.
"My job is to take pressure off them and have some fun and enjoy it," Smith said. "We've had trouble responding to pressure. I've been trying a lot of different ways in approaching it as far as how much we say about now or never."
There are far fewer questions surrounding the Gophers about their NCAA tournament bid potential than in past seasons. That hasn't lessened their burden to prove they belong,
A resilient performance in Chicago could mean the difference between a more desirable seed or a Selection Sunday spent sweating out what precarious first round match-up they may be left with.
Big Ten tournament notes
• The No. 9 seed has defeated the No. 8 seed only three times in the tournament's 15-year history (Michigan - 2008; Iowa - 2002; Penn State - 2000)
• Illinois has defeated the Gophers in all four of their prior meetings in the Big Ten tourney.
• The good news for the Gophers is that, along with Illinois, they own the most low-seed upsets in tournament history (8).