Tubby Smith insists Gophers remain a solid NCAA tourney-caliber team
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Only days after a loss at Iowa that coach Tubby Smith later labeled as "devastating," the Gophers have reached a pivotal stretch in their suddenly volatile season.
The Gophers staggered out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday in shock after they let a 21-5 lead crumble into a 21-point Iowa victory. Seven minutes of efficient play on both ends of the court were followed by one of the worst 30-minute spans in Smith's six-year tenure with the program.
Hoping to maintain the boost it received from their comeback victory against then-No.20 ranked Wisconsin, the Gophers instead were handed their seventh loss in 10 games. The defeat occurred in such glaring fashion that it has since ignited questions of whether or not Smith's team can rescue a season so close to spiraling completely out of control.
Which path this season takes will be determined in the course of the next two weeks, starting Wednesday with a challenging road match-up at No. 18 Ohio State (18-7, 8-5).
Sitting in seventh place in the Big Ten with a 6-7 record, the Gophers are likely two wins and a decent showing in the Big Ten tournament away from assuring they stay well away from the NCAA tournament bubble come Selection Sunday.
Getting there with minimal damage will be difficult for a team trying to regain the consistency and resolve needed to be a late-season threat. The Gophers end the regular season with games against three of the conference's four lowest placed teams -- Purdue, Nebraska and Penn State. But before those meetings, they first must face the dangerous Buckeyes, who coincidentally are also coming off a 20-plus point loss, and No. 1-ranked Indiana.
When asked Tuesday if he still sees this team worthy of an NCAA tournament bid, Smith didn't hesitate before replying with an adamant "Yes."
"We've done our job. Now we have to finish it," Smith said. "Not many people have won more games in the top-25 than we have (4-4). I'm not happy with the way that we lost. That didn't help anything, when you lose by 21 at Iowa City. Hopefully that's a game that is long behind us. We're moving on."
Determining if the Gophers have truly moved past their collapse at Iowa won't be possible until the aftermath of their showdown with Ohio State.
The mood after practice Tuesday was more subdued than it has been after previous losses, as the gravity and immediacy of their nearly critical situation seems to have slowly set in. The players continue to express no signs of panic or overt frustration, but their responses to questions have become increasingly straight-forward and plain-spoken.
There is no doubting the Gophers have heard the growing, and sometimes heated, talk about their head coach's future with the program. That, coupled with the criticism dished out regarding their pattern of similar mistakes and weaknesses, has cast an added layer of pressure for the team. But Gophers senior forward Trevor Mbakwe insists the players are filtering out the negative buzz the best they can.
"Obviously it's frustrating," Mbakwe said. "When you're doing well everybody is on your side. When things go bad, everything gets sour. But it's tough. We hear what's going on. We see it in the newspaper, but we try to rally around it. We know we're one of the better teams. We have to keep playing for each other."
Whether they will admit it or not, the Gophers' psyche has been noticeably damaged in the last few weeks. Keeping their mental wherewithal at a manageable level will be key as they traverse the final five games of the regular season.
Although this is the third straight season the Gophers have gone through a late-season slid similar to this, Smith refuses to think that his team's mental outlook has been irreversible damaged after the Iowa loss.
"Young people, their mental state comes and goes," Smith said. "It's just the way it is. We've had good practices. It was one of those games. We know we blew it ... It was a tough."
"I know I haven't been in a good mood, but I haven't been in a good mood since we lost four in a row. But we are getting better."
• Iowa's mid-first half switch to a zone defense triggered the Gophers' free fall Sunday. As most of the program's onlookers are well aware, zone and pressure defenses have often baffled the Gophers' inconsistent offense - see also: 55-48 loss at Northwestern. With those woes firmly on the mind, the squad is preparing to see teams throw zones at them the rest of the way this season.
"After that performance (at Iowa) I would say teams will be looking to play zone against us," sophomore center Elliott Eliason said with a reluctant laugh. "We'll probably see a lot more pressure. We've been working on it. We've got to kind of take a deep breath when we see that and understand that we have to get inside and attack the zone better."
• Eliason is projected to start at center against Ohio State, with senior forward Rodney Williams' status still in question as result of a shoulder strain suffered on Feb. 9. Eliason has logged 28 minutes in two of the last three games, totaling a combined eight points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and six blocks in those appearances.
• Smith expects freshman guard Wally Ellenson to be available off the bench on Wednesday after being sidelined for nearly two weeks with a strained left Achilles. Ellenson has practiced with the team this week, and is no longer wearing a brace over his foot.
Ellenson's freshman year has been defined by injuries, from the broken hand that kept him out for the first half of the season to the his recent struggle with his injured Achilles tendon. In total, he has played in only six of the Gophers' 26 games this season.
• The Gophers have not won at Ohio State since 2005, when Dan Coleman's tip-in in overtime helped take down the Buckeyes 60-56 at Value City Arena.