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Updated: February 5th, 2013 5:06pm
Zulgad: 'U' needs to clean up its on-the-court act to become contenders

Zulgad: 'U' needs to clean up its on-the-court act to become contenders

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

Tubby Smith didn't get much rest on Sunday night.

The Gophers men's basketball coach returned home after his team's last-second victory over Iowa at Williams Arena and settled in to watch the Super Bowl. Smith then began to dissect the film of his team's performance against the Hawkeyes.

The Maryland native had been pleased to see the Ravens win the Super Bowl, but he was not nearly as happy when he watched his team's performance. In fact, Smith admitted Monday that he did not sleep well after watching the basketball game.

This admission should not have come as a surprise to anyone who either witnessed the Gophers' 62-59 victory on television or was there in person to view a game that Minnesota won on Austin Hollins' jump shot with 11.6 seconds remaining.

While Smith attempted to view things through the prism that his team had won the game, he knew this victory had not passed the eyeball test.

Not even close.

The Gophers ended a four-game losing streak by beating Nebraska by 19 points on Jan. 29 at Williams Arena. For a team that had big expectations only a month ago, the hope was that victory would serve as a springboard after especially painful losses at Northwestern and Wisconsin.

The Gophers didn't have to blow out Iowa (14-8, 3-6) but after taking a 12-point lead in the first half it would have been nice to see them put their foot on the accelerator, limit mistakes and show they were the better team on their home floor.

Instead, the Gophers and Hawkeyes engaged in another ugly Big Ten game that was difficult to watch and featured far too many sloppy plays and unnecessary errors on both sides. This included 12 turnovers by the home team.

The Gophers got little production from their bench, but, in fairness, Smith didn't rely on the reserves for much.

Center Elliott Eliason had six rebounds in 19 minutes. Besides that, Julian Welch, Maverick Ahanmisi, Oto Osieniks, Maurice Walker and Andre Ingram combined for four assists and two rebounds. Those six players did not attempt a shot or a free throw and after Eliason no one played more than six minutes.

It's become pretty clear that the starters are going to have to take the 18th-ranked Gophers as far as they can. Minnesota is 17-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big Ten with nine games left, including Wednesday's matchup with Michigan State (18-4, 7-2) in East Lansing.

The Gophers have not won at Michigan State since the 1996-97 season, but they did beat the Spartans, 76-63, on Dec. 31 of this season at Williams.

Here's the real concern for Smith and Co.

The Gophers' starting five - Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Austin Hollins, Joe Coleman and point guard Andre Hollins - has not been nearly consistent enough to provide much hope that success in the NCAA tournament is possible.

It would take a monumental collapse for Tubby's team not to make the tournament, but there is a big difference between qualifying and making a run.

Among the worries coming out of Sunday's game was the continued uneven play of Williams and a lack of assertiveness from Mbakwe in the middle. Williams, a senior forward, finished with 10 points on 5-for-11 shooting but he did not get to the free-throw line once. He did have a team-high seven rebounds and when Williams wants to play he can be a factor.

Far too often, it seems as if the 6-foot-7, 205-pound Williams has little interest in mixing it up inside.

Giving Mbakwe the benefit of the doubt, it looks as if the senior continues to lack explosiveness getting off the floor after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in November 2011.

Mbakwe was the only Gophers starter who failed to score in double figures against the Hawkeyes. He finished with eight points and was only 2-for-5 from the floor with six rebounds. Andre Hollins, who is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, had as many rebounds as the 6-8, 245-pound Mbakwe.

Austin Hollins led the Gophers with 17 points against Iowa, but the junior also has had games where he was nowhere to be found. In losing to Northwestern and Wisconsin, Hollins made only two of 15 shots from the field and had eight points.

Andre Hollins and Coleman also have had their moments where they look like key parts to this team and others where they appear to be lost.

Every player is going to struggle at times, that's a given. But there's a difference between having a bad game and disappearing when your team needs you the most.

If the Gophers are going to put the disappointment of recent seasons behind them, and build off of early-season wins over Michigan State and Illinois, there needs to be an elimination of the mistakes and inconsistency that seem to come up time and time again.

That needs to start taking place on Wednesday night at the Breslin Center or Smith is in for plenty of more restless nights.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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