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.
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