Streaking in Wrong Direction

If the Gophers lose to Michigan on Saturday, they might seal their postseason fate. They're spiraling downward in arguably the worst season of coach Tubby Smith's tenure. The same team that beat Purdue, West Virginia and North Carolina in better times has lost six of its last eight games.

A Big Ten tournament run might be their only means to an at-large bid. They did it last year with a team that possessed far more depth and experience.

It seems as if their best chance of recovery depends on Al Nolen's status in the postseason. Their collapse started after he broke his foot Jan. 22.

After his team's 53-48 loss to Michigan State Tuesday night, Smith said the senior starting point guard might return in time for the postseason.

"You just have to wait on it," Smith said about the injury. But time is running out on their NCAA tourney hopes.

BEYOND THE BOX SCORE: Blake Hoffarber's scoring has been all over the place since he made the move to point guard last month. He recorded 20 points in a win over Northwestern on Jan. 26 in his first game in that position. But in two of the team's last three games, he has finished with single digits. He's the team's leading scorer, and his offensive inconsistency might mean that teams are putting more pressure on him or it might mean that he's having trouble finding his shot. Whatever the cause, the Gophers need their top offensive player to be productive in their final games.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Gophers held a 47-39 lead with 4 minutes, 31 seconds to play Tuesday, but Michigan State finished with a 14-1 run to seal a 53-48 victory. Kalin Lucas led all scorers with 18 points. The Gophers had nine turnovers in the second half alone. Ralph Sampson III scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

--The Gophers have a 2-6 record without starting point guard Al Nolen. They lost to Virginia in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge without him in December. Both times, the senior was out with a foot injury.

--Coach Tubby Smith's move to a 2-3 zone has helped freshman Austin Hollins become a much-needed ball hawk. He's averaged 1.14 steals in Big Ten play, the seventh-best mark in the conference. Hollins, son of Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, acts like a free safety in the scheme, intercepting and deflecting cross-court passes. It's a huge boost for the Gophers who lost Al Nolen last month. He was the Big Ten's steals leader before he suffered a foot injury.

--G Blake Hoffarber has been forced into an uncomfortable situation. For three-plus seasons, he earned a reputation as one of the top shooters in the country. But a move to point guard after Nolen's injury has affected his production. He's shooting 39 percent from the three-point line, a sharp decline from last year's 47 percent clip. The change can't be completely blamed on Hoffarber's position switch. He's added new wrinkles to his game, like a midrange jumper, so he's not relying on the three-pointer the way he did in past years. But he's focused on being a distributor instead of the shooter he's been for the program. Still, he's managed to average 14.0 points per game.

--If the Gophers can't figure out a way to pull out a few late season victories, they might need another Big Ten tourney miracle to earn an at-large bid to the Big Dance. Last season, the Gophers endured a stretch that included seven losses in 10 games. But a run to the Big Ten title game solidified their status as a tourney team.

BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Conference road wins for the Gophers in each of Tubby Smith's first three seasons. They've won two Big Ten road games (at Michigan, at Iowa) this year. They play at Northwestern March 2.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's just a totally different team now. They play a 2-3 zone. I've never seen that in four years playing against these guys. When Al (Nolen) was out there, he could pretty much guard anybody's best perimeter player." -- Penn State coach Talor Battle after his team's 66-63 victory over the Gophers in State College, Pa., Feb. 17.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME:

--vs. Michigan, Feb. 26

KEY MATCHUPS: The Gophers face another feisty point guard in Michigan's Darius Morris. The sophomore is averaging 15.4 points per game entering the week. The Wolverines have won four of their last five games. Freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn't play like his father. But he's a smooth athlete who's grown into an impact player for the Wolverines.


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