Sandell: Tourney still in sights, but Gophers' direction seems lost
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All is not lost for Tubby Smith and his Gophers men's basketball team.
That fact has to be remembered when examining the mess that has become of another once-promising season.
Forget for a moment that the Gophers' monumental collapse Sunday at Iowa dropped the team to its seventh loss in 10 games, and added more fuel to the heated discourse about Smith's job security.
Regardless of rapidly increasing tension within a volatile Gophers fan base, Smith's team is still nowhere near the NCAA tournament bubble with five games remaining in Big Ten play. Even with their recent slide factored in, the Gophers' RPI stands 15th-best in the nation, and their strength of schedule is second only to Duke.
In the past seven years no major conference team (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC) has failed to make the NCAA tournament with an RPI ranked lower than 39, according RealtimeRPI.com. Last season, Conference USA's Marshall earned the distinction of the team with the highest RPI to be snubbed by the selection committee with a No. 43-ranking.
However, while the Gophers are momentarily safe from sitting out of the tournament for a third season in a row, they are a program on red-alert. As a result, the pleas directed at University of Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague to make a coaching change have become a dangerous rising tide.
Smith's crew has not hit not rock bottom, but it continues to hurtle down the seemingly never-ending late-season ravine it has fallen into in its previous two seasons. The Gophers' recent Big Ten woes are well-documented. In back-to-back seasons, the Gophers breezed through their non-conference slate with 11-1 and 12-1 records only to fall apart in the conference, going 6-12 both times and failing to make the tourney.
The collapse that didn't seem possible to take place again this season is happening. Again.
All may not be lost this season, but the debacle that took place Sunday in Iowa City delivered a chilling reality check. The Hawkeyes, who entered with a 5-7 conference record and their fragile NCAA tournament dreams reliant on a strong finish, rallied in remarkable fashion in a game that has the potential to be a bitter lasting memory of Smith's tenure.
For seven minutes, the Gophers appeared to be been rejuvenated by their overtime victory against Wisconsin and their Ke$ha-infused post-game dance party. Solid ball movement and the exposing of open lanes inside powered them to a 21-5 lead.
But suddenly the Gophers reverted to sinking ship-mode. Iowa sent the Gophers into a tailspin with a sharp zone defense and a resilient offensive effort, outscoring the Gophers 67-30 the rest of the way.
"It's devastating, especially the way it happened," Smith said Monday on his weekly radio show on 1500 ESPN. "Six or seven minutes in, I'm thinking 'We're going to be OK. We're playing well today. The guys got the message. They are executing the game plan.' Then we do some things, make some careless mistakes, some fouls."
In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, a bewildered and frustrated Smith verbalized to a degree the feelings that since have been endlessly addressed on talk radio, Twitter and fan message boards.
"I don't know if I have seen such a dramatic turnaround in such a short time as coach of any team I've had," Smith said. "It's about as disappointing a loss as I have ever had."
The Gophers' listless performance was a frightening display to see out of a team this late in the season, especially one that has been ranked as high as eighth in the country.
What has been most troubling is the problems that have crippled the Gophers continue to be the same. In seven of their eight losses, they have committed 13 or more turnovers. When opponents switch to a zone, the Gophers become a blundering unit with not enough composure to answer back. Players start floating around on offense, making frantic decisions and expressing a lack of aggression.
That has been ongoing issue for Smith's teams, and a major point of criticism targeted at the 61-year-old coach.
On Sunday, he seemed as baffled about his team's ineffectiveness against the zone as the program's onlookers.
"It was like 'Don't give it to me.' (The ball) was like a hot potato. Get it to somebody else, somebody else try it. That's what it became," Smith said. "We try to get organize and try to run certain offenses against certain zones, whether it's a 1-2-2 or 2-3. Basically any zone you just have to pick and probe, inside-out. It's not hard."
Smith later dubbed sophomore center Elliott Eliason the Gophers' best option against the zone because "he's willing to pass it." Eliason, who came off the bench to log 28 minutes, finished with a game-high four assists, matching the starting lineup's combined total.
"When your center has the most assists you have a problem," Smith said Monday. "We were not really sharing the basketball ... We missed people open."
Inconsistent transition defense against long-distance shots also has killed the Gophers. They have allowed opponents to score 21 points or more off three-pointers nine times in 13 conference games. In their eight losses, opponents have shot on average 46 percent from outside (62-for-133).
And with a squad that relies so heavily on its starting lineup, at least one or two starters have had the tendency to disappear for long stretches in games. Against Iowa, guard Andre Hollins, derailed by foul troubles, and Joe Coleman combined to go 4-for-16 shots from the floor.
Hollins (11), Coleman (14) and fellow guard Austin Hollins (12) have each had at least 11 games in which they have converted three or fewer shots. The Gophers have had two of their three starting guards combine to shoot 26 percent or worse from the floor five times in Big Ten play -- all five games were losses.
Senior forward Rodney Williams continues to deal with a shoulder strain and that has not helped matters. He played only 10 minutes against Iowa and did not attempt a shot. His absence left forward Oto Osenieks to log 20 minutes, nearly 12 more than his season average. The redshirt sophomore back-up scored only three points, but did contribute four rebounds and three assists.
This season was supposed to be different. With all but two players back from their 2011-12 roster, a fully-intact starting lineup, the return of standout senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, the Gophers had the look of a team equipped with the experienced talent to do damage in March.
The Gophers fit that billing for the first half of the season with an impressive 12-1 romp through the non-conference schedule, and a 3-0 start in the Big Ten with victories over Michigan State and Illinois that remain noteworthy. In that stretch, the Gophers played aggressive and showed an upside that garnered nationwide attention.
But the blatant unraveling that didn't seem possible to happen for a third time started to take place with a stinging, but hard-fought defeat at Indiana. Until Sunday, most of the Gophers' losses could have likely been avoided with one or two fewer mistakes and a clutch shot here and there.
The defeat at Iowa was much more than that. The Gophers simply self-destructed. It was inexcusable after a spirited and morale boosting against rival Wisconsin. To fall apart in dramatic fashion one game later in a flurry of mistakes and lackadaisical play fully exposed the large-scale cleansing that would have to take place for this team to find its composure.
Whether you put the blame squarely on Smith, or allow it to be shared mutually by the inconsistent lineup, the Gophers were not ready to play for the long haul at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It was the second time this season the Gophers failed to sustain rediscovered success. After losing four consecutive games in January, two of which were against then-ranked teams, the Gophers bounced back with wins home wins over Nebraska and Iowa. However, momentum was stalled with a 61-50 defeat at Michigan State and a crushing loss to Illinois, which on a slightly lesser scale followed a pattern similar to Sunday's outing.
A glimmer of new life appeared when the Gophers rallied against Wisconsin. But once again that positive energy has been extinguished.
The Gophers insisted they had learned from the struggles of the last two seasons, and were armed with the wherewithal to stay out of the same hard-to-escape downward spiral.
So far, those lessons have not translated to the court.
In the past three years, Smith has seen his teams go 4-16 in the month of February. This season marks the fourth consecutive time the Gophers have entered the final five games of the regular season with a sub-.500 conference record (6-7, 5-8, 6-7 and 6-7).
The Gophers have to finish 3-2 in the season's closing stretch just to match the highest conference win total a Smith-led team has notched in his six-year tenure.
Again, it cannot be forgotten that this season is more than capable of being salvaged. Two more victories likely will be more than enough to lock up the Gophers' first tournament bid since 2010. With upcoming match-ups with the Big Ten's 11th and 12th place teams -- Nebraska and Penn State -- the advantage is on the Gophers' side.
While it may be hard to believe for those calling for Smith's job, the Gophers are in the best position to seal a tourney bid they've been in at this juncture in a season since 2008-09. That is both reassuring and a reminder the program's reoccurring woes.
In that season, Smith's second with the team, the Gophers rolled to an 18-3 start with a signature win against No. 9 Louisville. They faltered in the stretch run with losses in six of their final nine games, but they stayed in the good graces of the selection committee enough to secure a 10-seed in the 65-team field. The Gophers, however, never did regain their early-season swagger, losing 76-62 to the Longhorns.
Given the parody of this year's tourney contenders and the Big Ten's reputations as the nation's best conference, the Gophers can still comfortably hold on to the notion they control their destiny. If Smith and his players can find a way to encapsulate some the fight they showed in their biggest wins -- No. 21 Memphis, No. 4 Michigan State and No. 19 Wisconsin, they have an opportunity to squash the surge of negativity that has grown around the program.
But what have the Gophers done this season and in previous years under Smith to make a convincing argument that such a rally is possible? The answer is very little.
A road trip to Ohio State and a rematch with No. 1 Indiana await the Gophers in the next eight days. Without a startling upset, they could potentially be staring at a 6-9 Big Ten record with three games to go. If that scenario comes to fruition, depending on how those two games transpire, the Gophers may be besieged by unwanted pressure in "must-win" situations.
The meetings with Nebraska and Penn State, and even their season-finale at Purdue, are prime chances to level out at 9-9 in the conference. It's naïve though to think any of those three are sure wins. If the up-and-down pattern of this season stays intact, it's hard to gauge if the mental state of this team can hold together enough to prevent another significant letdown.
Any loss from here on out will bring another reprise from the "Fire Tubby" crowd.
Following the Gophers' return to .500 in the Big Ten in the Wisconsin victory, Smith made a slight quip about the onslaught of criticism his program has faced.
"The sky was falling around here," Smith said. "Sometimes when the sky is falling and you're laying under ceiling you think it's going to cave in on you. They wanted it, but we had to have it. ... We're not a dog by any means."
However, the longer this slide has gone on the more it has become increasingly understandable that Smith is fighting to keep his job. Smith's contract, which had a three-year extension tacked on last summer, prevents him from being fired midseason. But the Gophers are able to part ways with him at the end of the year if they cough up the $2.5 million buyout, plus retirement payments.
An NCAA tournament appearance and at least one victory once there, which would be the program's first in 16 years, would almost assure Smith's return next season. Without that, all bets are off.
Living under those high-stakes parameters could prove to be too much for a team that is as fragile as the Gophers. Either way, this team is entering the defining stretch of its season, and possibly for Smith's program as a whole.