Zulgad: If nothing else, 'U' needs to show some life vs. top-ranked Indiana
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There was a time when it appeared the Minnesota Gophers men's basketball game against Indiana on Tuesday night at Williams Arena could help decide who won the Big Ten title.
That time now seems long ago.
The Gophers were 15-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten on Jan. 9 after an impressive victory at then-No. 12 Illinois. It was at that point the Gophers seemed to be a far different team than the one that had underachieved in 2011-12 before making a late run in the NIT.
Three days after beating the Illini, Tubby Smith's club faced its toughest test of the young Big Ten season. Ranked eighth in the country, the Gophers went into Bloomington, Ind., and fell behind 52-29 at halftime. A furious second-half rally wasn't enough and the Gophers lost, 88-81, to an Indiana team that was ranked fifth in the nation.
Minnesota, having fallen only one spot in the rankings, returned to Williams Arena and dropped an 83-75 decision to No. 5 Michigan. The pessimists raised an eyebrow and said, "Here we go again."
The optimists clung to the belief, or hope, that the Gophers had lost back-to-back games to two of the better teams in college basketball and that a game at Northwestern would get things turned around.
The Gophers, however, managed to lay an egg against the Wildcats and now are on a run of having lost eight of 11 since visiting Indiana. That leaves Minnesota tied for seventh in the conference with Iowa and Purdue at 6-8. The Gophers are 18-9 overall and remain in position to make the NCAA tournament in part because of a strong RPI and strength of schedule. However, there are no guarantees at this point.
This brings us back to Tuesday night's game at Williams Arena.
The Gophers are underdogs and expectations that might once have existed are long gone.
Tom Crean's team is ranked No. 1 in the country and is 12-2 in the Big Ten and 24-3 overall. The Hoosiers are on track to grab a top seed in the NCAA tournament and feature star power such as Cody Zeller (team-leading 16.6 points per game and 8.1 rebounds) and the fabulously talented Victor Oladipo (14 points, six rebounds).
Indiana has hit a few bumps in the road this season but has bounced back each time. Three days after beating the Gophers, the Hoosiers lost, 64-59, to Wisconsin at home. Indiana has won nine of 10 since that time with the only defeat being a last-second loss at Illinois.
While top-ranked teams have fallen at an alarming rate, no one is expecting a Gophers victory on Tuesday. Sadly, even a representative performance from the home team might be considered a step in the right direction with the NCAA tournament approaching.
The Gophers will close the Big Ten regular season with games against Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue. The final two will be on the road. Those games are all winnable - none of the three teams is over .500 overall - but so was the one at Northwestern.
The Gophers are coming off back-to-back embarrassing losses at Iowa (72-51) and Ohio State (71-45) and there is more talk about whether new athletic director Norwood Teague will pay the buyout on Smith's contract than there is about expectations for the postseason.
The worst case scenario is the Gophers get blown out again Tuesday and then fall flat in their final three games and the Big Ten tournament. As hard as it is to imagine, this team could still play itself out of the NCAA tourney.
There will be no feel good story out of an NIT run this time around.
The realistic best-case scenario is the Gophers come out Tuesday against Indiana and show the mental and physical toughness that has been completely lacking since early January.
Forward Rodney Williams is expected to play normal minutes after being limited by a shoulder injury but the Gophers need him to do more than play. They need him to play with passion. He isn't the only one. This team must show some life, even if it fails to win the game.
If that happens, the Gophers could attempt to take whatever momentum they can grab into games against a trio of what should be lesser foes. As depressing as this has become for Smith and the Gophers, they do have time to save the season. However, the clock is ticking and so far the losses haven't stopped accumulating.