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Updated: March 7th, 2013 9:43pm
Sandell: Loss to Nebraska proves Gophers remain hard to figure out

Sandell: Loss to Nebraska proves Gophers remain hard to figure out

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

Even one game from the end of the regular season, trying to figure out the true identity of the Gophers men's basketball team has become a baffling and almost impossible task.

The Gophers' season has been a never-ending masquerade, filled with a bundling mess of contradictions. Consistency has been nowhere to be found.

It's a harsh reality that after a gut-punching 53-51 loss at Nebraska on Wednesday the Gophers find themselves facing the possibility of dropping as far ninth place in the Big Ten standings by the conclusion of Sunday's games.

With a nearly impenetrable high-ranking RPI (down only to No. 20) and a strength of schedule rating second only to Duke, the NCAA tournament is still locked in on their horizon -- a statement the Gophers rarely have been able to boast in recent years.

But the Gophers' fall in Lincoln brought the unpredictable and stormy weather that has haunted them back to hover over the program with postseason play less than a week away

Gone is the Gophers' chance at their first winning Big Ten record in six seasons under coach Tubby Smith. They have now lost seven consecutive games away from Williams Arena. Since jumping to a 3-0 record in the conference, the Gophers (20-10, 8-9) have rocked back and forth to five wins in 15 games. In seven of nine losses in that stretch, the Gophers have failed to score more than 51 points.

It would have been tough to predict at the start of the Big Ten season that the Gophers' finale at Purdue would be considered a "key game." A win would put them in sixth or seventh place, depending on how Iowa fares at home against Nebraska and Illinois' result at Ohio State. That would give them a more favorable route in the lower half of the Big Ten tournament bracket with a first round match-up against either Nebraska or Northwestern.

A loss, however, has the potential of allowing Iowa, Illinois, and Purdue to all finish in front of them. If they fall against the 7-10 Boilermakers, Iowa defeats Nebraska to move to 9-9 and Illinois (21-10, 8-9) loses to Ohio State, the Gophers would plummet to the ninth seed in the tourney on the basis of tiebreakers.

What is maddening about this Gophers squad is determining which version will show up on a game-to-game basis.

The Gophers' constant ebb and flow has made it hard to consider them fully capable of making noise in the NCAA tournament, but there has been enough upside shown to keep them from being counted out completely.

Words and phrases like "back on track," "rejuvenated" and "turnaround" have been tagged on the Gophers, even by this site, on numerous occasions. But those periods of upward movement have been followed by puzzling losses.

At moments, coach Tubby Smith' Gophers have looked the part of the team that rumbled to a 15-1 start, deserving of its stature among the nation's top ranked teams. On other, and alarmingly frequent occasions, they have been a stumbling, out-of-sync assortment.

Dethroning No. 1 ranked Indiana last week in a stunningly effective manner was supposed to be a moment, like several other instances this season, that the Gophers stabilized themselves for a strong push into March. The swirling criticism from easy-to-ignite fans and onlookers about Smith's long-term future had been defused temporarily.

The Gophers' dismantling victory, 73-44, against Penn State gave further credence to the idea that they had found a way to strengthen their ever-fragile state, despite previous regressions after strong performances in last two months. The back-to-back wins were two of the best all-around victories the Gophers have produced this year.

However, in another twist to this season's confounding plot line, the momentum-infused team that had outplayed Indiana and throttled Penn State took another leap back in the wrong direction at Nebraska.
The similarities between the team that was on display last week and the one that showed up in Lincoln were miniscule.

Set aside excuses about the setting for a minute - on the road at Nebraska, where the Huskers were celebrating the final game at the Bob Devaney Center as part of Senior Night.

What happened to the Gophers went beyond concerns about the game's backdrop. For about 30 minutes, the Gophers were severely lacking the wherewithal one would expect with an opportunity to keep its late-season "revitalization" intact at stake.

The game turned into an ugly bout between one team with its season back to hanging over a precipice, and the other attempting to give its home fans one last memorable highlight in an otherwise forgettable season.

When the Gophers, who never held the lead, finally discovered their fleeting sense of sense of urgency for a late push, it proved to have come too late. Nebraska, regardless of its less than pretty outing, didn't break in the final minutes when the Gophers made one last run at completing a nine-point comeback.

The inconsistencies in output that should have been remedied at this late juncture have crept back into the picture.

It was only the second time in the Gophers' 10 losses that they kept their turnover numbers at 10 or fewer (nine). The problem on Wednesday came instead from their inability to capitalize on the hearty dose of opportunities to take command when Nebraska gave them the opening.

Starters Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins went a combined 0-for-9 from the floor, with sophomore Joe Coleman failing to take a shot in his 17 minutes off the bench. All four of guard Andre Hollins' four baskets came in the final seven minutes of the game.

The Gophers have a tendency to falter when one of their main standouts - Williams, Trevor Mbakwe or Andre Hollins -- has an ineffective night. Williams, who has not been the same since a straining his shoulder in mid-February, could not find a way into the scoring column against Nebraska. In Big Ten play, Williams has two points or less four times - the Gophers have lost all four games.

While the loss didn't reach the level of disheartening routs at Iowa and Ohio State two weeks earlier, it has the Gophers reeling again at a time where they need to be displaying forward motion.

Even with their problems, the way the Gophers have openly flirted between positive and negative results make them difficult to write off. They have shown they are capable of playing up to a high-level, but have been on the opposite end as well. Their fate relies on what version shows up Saturday at Purdue and on into the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, and how long they hold to that form.

Where is this season headed? If the last two months are any indicator, who knows?

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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