Gophers Losing Their Swagger

Tubby Smith's Gophers entered Big Ten play having already exceeded their win total from last season, but their recent slide seems to have the team mystified.

What happened to the confident Gophers? The Gophers who had the swagger after they'd entered the Big Ten schedule with a 10-2 record, already outdoing last season's squad that finished just 9-22?

Minnesota kicked off the conference season with a close loss Jan. 5 at Michigan State.

But the team hasn't been right since the home loss to Indiana Jan. 17.

The Gophers have lost three out of four since that loss and tumbled to a 3-5 record in the Big Ten. From potential bubble team to a squad that would be lucky to join the NIT at this pace, and time might be running short for the Gophers to come out of their hole.

Tubby Smith seems as mystified as the Minnesota fanbase. After the 63-47 loss to Wisconsin Sunday, he said his team wasn't focused and might be distracted. But that reasoning doesn't get him any closer to solving his team's tendency to start games a bit slow. Ohio State went up 19-3 against Minnesota Jan. 26 and Wisconsin led 29-10 in the first half. OK, more than a bit slow. Verifiably stagnant.

Sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook said that he's not affected when the team's seniors don't step up to lead the Gophers on the court, which they haven't done consistently. His statements seem to reflect the feelings of an underclassman who wishes the team's veterans could carry it in tight spots but realizes that the Gophers' young players are just as likely to lead.

That puts Smith in a difficult position unlike any he ever faced at Kentucky, where he often had veterans stepping up in clutch situations. But until he brings in the kind of talent he's seeking, he'll have to get used to slow starts. Unless the Gophers find an answer soon, the slow starts might lead to an even slower finish.


  • C Spencer Tollackson has played with more aggression of late. But the 6-foot-9 center is averaging just 3.9 rebounds per game in conference play, which is second on the team.

  • Since G Al Nolen suffered a thigh injury that kept him out of the team's loss to Michigan State Jan. 20, the Big Ten's steals leader has a total of four steals and just three points in three games.

  • Lawrence McKenzie said he has to step up to give the Gophers a confidence boost. He said he hopes his team feeds off his energy. Smith backed up McKenzie when he said that the senior point guard would be selfish if he did not take open shots and play his role as one of a few players who can create his own shots. That's why his four shot attempts against Wisconsin Feb. 3 were so puzzling.

  • G Lawrence Westbrook, the nation's top scorer as a prep when he was at Chandler High School in Arizona, has scored 26 points in the team's last two games. And he's done it with a heavily taped right hand.

  • G Lawrence McKenzie said his right hand, his shooting hand, still bothers him. He bruised the right hand earlier this season, and he said it continues to bother him every game. That might be the reason why his production was down against Wisconsin Feb. 3.

  • G Blake Hoffarber, the Big Ten's top three-point shooter, has played just 19 minutes in the last two games and has not scored. Against Michigan, the stud freshman played only two minutes. Tubby Smith has shaken up his rotation recently, which has given the team's starters more minutes.

    PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Dan Coleman, C Spencer Tollackson, F Damian Johnson, G Lawrence Westbrook, G Lawrence McKenzie. Key Subs — G Al Nolen, G Blake Hoffarber.

    IN FOCUS: Iowa is the giant killer of the Big Ten. They've already beaten Michigan State and Ohio State. Beating the Hawkeyes at home Feb. 9 would give the Gophers a much-needed jolt of confidence. But the key to defeating Iowa is capitalizing on scoring chances because the Hawkeyes have been able to slow down the pace of the game and surprise teams in low-scoring contests.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "They find ways to make plays because we're waiting for somebody else to do something." — Tubby Smith after a 63-47 loss to Wisconsin Feb. 3.


    Minnesota 60, Ohio State 76

    Minnesota 77, Michigan 65

    Minnesota 47, Wisconsin 63


    at Northwestern, Wednesday, Feb. 6.

    vs. Iowa, Saturday, Feb. 9.

    vs. Illinois, Tuesday, Feb. 12.

    at Wisconsin, Saturday, Feb. 16

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