Smith's Criticism Could Help Turn U Around

The Gophers stopped the bleeding. But are they out of time? Minnesota ended last week ranked 25th in the country. Clearly the team has the credentials it takes to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. But the Gophers also ended the week on a four-game losing streak, curtailed Sunday in a 62-45 whipping of Iowa.

Coach Tubby Smith hopes for a boys-to-men story in the final two weeks of pre-tournament play. His ribbing -- pointed, direct and critical comments about the state of the team after losing to Illinois on Feb. 10 -- including referring to the 2010-11 team as "boys" compared to the "men" who mounted a furious rally in the Big Ten tournament to make up for the six-game collapse to end the regular season.

Smith hopes his current team can muster the same miracle run before tournament time. Sunday night's win at Iowa seemed to be a statement from a team that felt the sting of Smith's criticism last week.

But to remove itself from the NCAA Tournament bubble, Minnesota has to move forward with a friendly schedule to finish February and begin March, including three home games and trips to Northwestern and Penn State.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Junior F Trevor Mbakwe tallied a career-high 24 points in Sunday night's win over Iowa. Mbakwe had just two points at halftime but was unstoppable when he got position on the block and went 10 of 11 from the free throw line. Mbakwe had scored 16 points or more in seven of his last 10 games entering Thursday's game at Penn State.

--G Blake Hoffarber's knee is fine, he says, but he didn't appear to be at his best in the Feb. 13 win over Iowa. Hoffarber failed to hit double figures in scoring for the first time since Jan. 16 -- also against Iowa -- a span of six games.

BY THE NUMBERS: 6-6 -- The best conference record -- that belonging to Michigan State -- of the Gophers' five remaining opponents entering the week (including two games vs. Penn State).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We had some pretty mature kids last year. ... Right now, we've got boys." -- Coach Tubby Smith in comments made after a fourth straight loss, Feb. 10 against Illinois. The Gophers responded with a convincing win over Iowa three days later.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

GAME PREVIEW:

--at Penn State, Feb. 17

KEY MATCHUP: The only game for the Gophers in a span of 10 days will be critical in unclogging the middle of the pack in the Big Ten conference race. While Minnesota is 17-8 overall and has resume-building wins over North Carolina and West Virginia to boast, they're also 6-7 in the Big Ten, just like Penn State (13-11). The Nittany Lions have been very good at home and PG Talor Battle is always capable of a huge game -- he's averaging a team-best 20.4 points per game entering the week.

FUTURES MARKET: For the third straight season, the Gophers' NCAA Tournament ticket will come down to what happens in the final weeks of the season, if not the Big Ten tournament, as was the case last year. Entering the week, Minnesota was 37th in RPI but a series of losses in the final five games of the season -- considering the mediocre competition -- could be devastating.

PLAYER NOTES

--G Blake Hoffarber reacted like a team captain when told of coach Tubby Smith's Feb. 10 comments that Hoffarber had cost the team with his poor shot selection in a loss that night to Illinois. "I think he's just trying to build us to be a better player," Hoffarber said.


Gopher Illustrated Top Stories