Zulgad: 'U' provides reason to question high hopes after loss to Michigan
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Gophers men's basketball team went into Illinois a week ago Wednesday and came away with an impressive 84-67 victory that left every indication that Tubby Smith's team was for real.
The victory gave the then eighth-ranked Gophers a 3-0 record in the Big Ten and set up a matchup of highly ranked teams last Saturday at Indiana.
The Gophers, however, did not look like an elite club for a full 40 minutes.
They committed 12 turnovers in the first half as the Hoosiers went on a 36-14 run over the final 10 minutes, 8 seconds and Minnesota never fully recovered. Down by 23 points after 20 minutes, the Gophers rallied in the second half but fell short and lost, 88-81.
A split on the road against the 12th-ranked Illini and fifth-ranked Hoosiers still had to be considered a success. It also was considered refreshing that no one associated with the Gophers seemed to feel the second-half rally could qualify the loss as a moral victory.
Finally, Smith seemed to have a team that didn't take any positives from defeat. That mentality made it seem as if this Gophers team was different from the previous five Smith had coached.
Then came Thursday night's game against fifth-ranked Michigan at Williams Arena.
The student section in The Barn was full 45 minutes before the early 6 p.m. tipoff, the building was packed by the time the game began and there was an electricity that had been absent for so long that many in attendance had little recollection of why this building can be so great when things are going good.
Business was good inside and outside Williams Arena.
A scalper, standing in the late-afternoon chill, was asked what he was looking for in return for a ticket. "How many you looking for?" was the response. Told by the passerby that he was simply curious, the scalper smiled and said, "You know what they say about curiousity, don't you?"
The takeaway from that exchange was that the price was not cheap. It shouldn't have been.
This was the first meeting of two teams ranked in the top 10 at The Barn since 1977, and the Gophers had not beaten a top-five team at home since the 1994 season when they knocked off Arizona. Since that time, the Gophers had been 0-20 against top-five teams.
Make that 0-21. Thursday's final: Michigan 83, Gophers 75.
The Wolverines might be ranked only four spots higher than the Gophers, but the sellout crowd of 14,625 learned the difference between these teams is far greater than that.
Michigan held a 36-30 halftime lead after Gophers point guard Andre Hollins played only six of the opening 20 minutes after picking up two fouls. The Wolverines increased their advantage to as many as 19 in the second half before the Gophers attempted another rally.
Smith clearly was unhappy with his team's performance and traced it back to a poor effort in Wednesday's practice. "Especially the defensive effort," Smith said. "(It) showed today."
Throughout this season, Smith has appeared to be pleased with this team's work ethic, as well as their chemistry. But that wasn't the case Thursday. In his postgame press conference, Smith talked about the fact that Austin Hollins is the one player that consistently works hard.
"We've got one guy that comes every day," Smith said. "He's going to give you everything he has. (It's) Austin Hollins, it's not even close. ... Not that the other guys don't work hard but they don't come with that type of intensity and it shows. That's what was disappointing."
This seemed to be a return to last season, when Smith frequently appeared frustrated with his players.
"I'm disappointed in the two games with the way we played in the first half," he said.
Smith had good reason.
Michigan turned the Gophers' 10 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes into 22 points; Minnesota had only three points off the Wolverines' five turnovers. Smith's decision to keep Hollins on the bench didn't help matters.
The Wolverines went on a 10-2 run when Andre Hollins went to the bench and outscored the Gophers 25-17 with Hollins in the role of spectator.
The Gophers got within nine points (75-66) with four minutes left in the second half, but that proved to be all the more maddening considering how futile Minnesota looked early in the half.
There also were numerous missed opportunities to draw even closer during the rally. The Gophers missed seven free throws in the final 20 minutes.
"I don't think there were any nerves," said Austin Hollins, who led the team with 21 points and grabbed six rebounds. "That's what we prepare for. So there were no nerves going out there. It's just a matter of executing."
That lack of execution has to leave one wondering if the Gophers really are as good as was believed after their 15-1 start. Michigan is an extremely talented team and stood to be ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll if it could have beaten Ohio State last Sunday in Columbus.
But the Gophers were playing in front of their home crowd on Thursday and there was no reason to think they couldn't beat Michigan. The Gophers were right on Saturday when they did not attempt to spin the Indiana loss as a moral victory and any attempt to put a positive spin on what happened Thursday was futile.
"They are a really good team," the Gophers' Joe Coleman said of Michigan. "I think it's not necessarily a bad loss, but I think we can definitely learn from it."
Wasn't that was last season was about? Remember the NIT run that was seen as so beneficial?
This has been viewed as the best team Smith has had as the Gophers coach. That might still prove to be the case, but there are a lot more questions about whether that is true after what happened Thursday at The Barn.