The Minnesota Gophers are coming off of back-to-back losses to two Top 10 teams. Both the loss to Indiana and the loss to Michigan threatened to be blowouts early in the second half, but the boys that have no quit in their fight made both games interesting down the stretch. So where do we stand? Is this a team that played poorly for 25-30 minutes in both games and showed major holes, particularly on the offensive end and in their bench? Or is this a team that shouldn’t have won at Indiana (Wisconsin did) or against Michigan at home (Ohio St. did) and were impressive in making the games competitive?
It’s probably somewhere in between. The Gophers are now 3-2 in the Big Ten and below Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan St. and Ohio St. in the standings. But it’s a long season and January is always a tough month in college hoops. The rub, however, is that it’s always been a tough month for Tubby Smith’s Gophers teams, which is why Minnesota fans are particularly concerned right now. Two tough losses to two very good teams shouldn’t sound off the alarm bells. Except it does. Tubby’s teams have never fared well in Big Ten play. Minnesotans everywhere are sounding the alarm. Prematurely, granted, but history has taught us to be concerned at this point.
At least the Gophers realize it too.
Added Mbakwe: “We’re turning the ball over too much. They scored 22 points off turnovers. We got off to a slow start and it killed the momentum. We’ve got to figure out a way to take care of the ball. We know the winner of the Big Ten is going to have two or three losses. It’s too early. You’ve got to take care of your home game and win all of your home games. Everyone has a loss in the Big Ten except Wisconsin. Hopefully, when we go there next week we can hand them a loss. We still believe we have a chance to win the Big Ten.”
Mbakwe’s words are poignant at this stage. Gophers fans should be thinking the same way, assuming the team heeds Williams’ advice and stops digging holes like they do. There’s plenty of time to bounce back. The Gophers lost to the two best teams in the Big Ten. They’ve already taken care of business against Michigan St. and Illinois. Now we need to get back to taking care of business.
We’re not the only writers around that think so too. ESPN’s Eammon Brennon remains high on Minnesota despite their last two losses.
I’ve been riding hard for the Gophers all season long, and while there will be no small measure of recrimination for falling deeply behind in two straight losses — at Indiana, versus Michigan — I’m finding it hard to lose much faith. Lest we forget, Indiana and Michigan are pretty good, and the Gophers’ main strength (offensive rebounding) isn’t going to wax and wane like shooting percentage. But we should also be clear: You can’t turn over the ball as much as Minnesota does (21.9 percent of their possessions) and rely on the offensive boards; as Bruce Pearl said at halftime, you have to put it up on the glass and go get it, and you can’t do that if Mitch McGary is busy enjoying a fast-break dunk.
Brennon’s take is probably accurate. The Gophers need to cut down on turnovers. The item he missed is that the Gophers need better bench play too. It may be wishful thinking, but finding 10-15 points per game from the bench is a must to last the Big Ten grind.
Is the sky falling? No. Even though past history with Tubby Smith and the Big Ten schedule leads us to fear otherwise, the sky is not falling. Those losses sure don’t instill a ton of confidence in us Minnesota hopeful, though, especially in light of that history.
Wins against Northwestern and Wisconsin next week will make all of this go away. At least in the short term.
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