Smith: Sinking Gophers Have No Excuses

The Gophers might not get back into the NCAA Tournament race, after losing seven of their last eight games. But if they have any shot at another miracle finish — they won three games and lost in the program's first-ever Big Ten tournament title game last season — they'll have to regain their confidence.

Their head coach, Tubby Smith, has lost some of his during the team's prolonged slide. After Michigan beat the Gophers 70-63 in Minneapolis on Feb. 26, Smith said he told his team that their chances of going dancing were slim.

"I just told them how disappointing it is and that this is a game that probably, it does it in for us," Smith said. "We can't win at home against a team we're supposed to beat and we beat at their place. We're not missing but one guy, really. That's the disappointing part about it."

The Gophers have two regular-season games and a conference tourney remaining. And last year's run proves that it's possible to turn fumes into fire.

But, the Gophers haven't played like a team that's worthy of an at-large bid in more than a month. They're losing tight games against beatable teams.

Given their 6-10 record and sluggish play, this team could end up as the worst in Smith's tenure. Especially if they've lost faith that they can make an improbable, albeit necessary, rally down the stretch.


--The loss of Al Nolen to a broken foot has hurt the Gophers in a lot of areas. They miss his ballhandling. They miss his defense. And they miss his leadership. But in their recent losses, they've missed Nolen's ability to stay calm in tough situations. The late-game turnovers that have doomed the program in February were mostly committed by players who aren't used to having the ball in the game's most heated moments.

--Junior F Ralph Sampson III is No. 2 in blocks per game (2.0) behind Purdue's JaJuan Johnson. He's failed to block at least one shot in just four of his team's 28 games this season.

BY THE NUMBERS: 17 -- Straight 20-win seasons for Gophers head coach Tubby Smith, a streak that's in jeopardy this year. The Gophers are 17-11 this season. Smith is currently active leader in consecutive 20-win seasons.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Just careless turnovers. There's no reason for those turnovers at the end. There's no reason for Blake (Hoffarber) to try to throw the ball in there. None whatsoever. There's no reason for Rodney (Williams) to throw a little lob pass in there. There's no reason for Ralph (Sampson III) not to get it, but he didn't." -- Coach Tubby Smith said after his team's 70-63 loss to Michigan Saturday.



--at Northwestern, March 2

KEY MATCHUPS: Before the year began, this looked like a potentially crucial matchup for both teams. And in a way it is. The winner will control eighth-place in the Big Ten. The Wildcats and Gophers have fallen over the last month. The Gophers have lost seven of their last eight games. Northwestern shares their 6-10 Big Ten record. Blake Hoffarber, usually a shooting guard, will have to match Juice Thompson, a four-year point guard for the Wildcats, as he brings up the ball for the Gophers, who are missing Al Nolen.

--vs. Penn State, March 6

KEY MATCHUPS: The last time the Gophers faced Penn State, Talor Battle scored 28 points. The senior playmaker hit open threes against their 2-3 zone. Freshman Austin Hollins, who's been a ballhawk in the zone, will have to find a way to help his team limit Battle in order for the Gophers to win.

FUTURES MARKET: The Tubby Smith rumors have started a little early this year. Over the weekend, ESPN's Doug Gottlieb wrote that he'd talked to three head coaches who said the buzz within their fraternity centered of Georgia Tech possibly buying out Paul Hewitt and going after the 59-year-old Gophers coach.

This is nothing new for Smith, who's been linked to openings at Oregon, Virginia, Alabama and Auburn in recent years. The speculation this year, however, may supersede the norm. Smith doesn't have the practice facility he desires and he hasn't signed an extension that's been discussed for nearly a year.


--Senior G Al Nolen is still a question mark for the postseason. No official, player or coach affiliated with the team has offered a recent update on his progress four weeks after he broke his foot during a Jan. 22 game at Michigan. That's a bad sign with just two games remaining in the regular season.

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