A win against Iowa put a smile on Tubby Smith's face, but he knows there is still work for his squad to do to improve its standing in the Big Ten.
walked into the postgame press conference after the Iowa
game Feb. 9 with a smile on his face. His team had just won its second game in a row and secured its 15th win of the season.
Last season's Gophers won only nine. But even with the overall success, the team had struggled in Big Ten play, losing four out of five in January and early February.
But on this day, Smith said he was happy that he had a reason to celebrate and laugh. The uncharacteristic losses had clearly affected Smith, who at times was short with reporters during the team's losing streak.
After a win against Iowa, however, he joked about one reporter's sport coat. "You can't hide money, can you?" he told the reporter before asking him if he'd be willing to part with it for a day.
The easygoing vibe demonstrated by the coach has found its way onto the court, as the Gophers have gotten off to quick starts lately and moved the ball with ease. Whether players earn 30 minutes or 10, they're happy. They just want to win.
That selflessness will be necessary for a team holding on to the slim hope of earning its first NCAA tourney bid since 2005.
G Al Nolen appears to be fully recovered from the thigh injury that kept him out of Minnesota's home loss to Michigan State Jan. 17. His three steals against Iowa Feb. 9 wasn't the proof. It was his speed and the fastbreaks he led toward the end of the game that showed he had regained his agility and confidence.
G Lawrence McKenzie didn't start against Northwestern Feb. 6 or Iowa Feb. 9. Head coach Tubby Smith said McKenzie didn't start against Northwestern because he missed a mandatory study hall session, but he also said that McKenzie and other players who missed the session might have been confused about the time it began. But coming off the bench has served as a motivator for McKenzie. He scored 27 combined points in those two games.
For the first time this season, G Blake Hoffarber, the Big Ten's best 3-point shooter who has made 47.5 percent of his 3-point attempts, was inserted into the team's starting rotation against Northwestern Feb. 6. He started again against Iowa Feb. 9. In both games, the Gophers got off to a great start, something they've struggled to do this season, and the bench came on strong too.
C Jon Williams sat out against Northwestern Feb. 6 because he was suffering from a cold. Later that week, Tubby Smith said he was trying to get Williams, a 6-foot-9 junior and the team's only true reserve big man, to "toughen up." Whether Williams was still sick or his coach wanted to send him a message, he didn't play one minute against Iowa Feb. 9.
Minnesota is leading the Big Ten in 3-point field-goal percentage (37.7 percent). Their effective shooting from the beyond the arc is forcing some of the league's teams that play zone defense to make in-game adjustments when the Gophers are hot. But they've been exposed against the teams that play zone defense when the Gophers are ineffective in the post.
C Spencer Tollackson wanted help with his free throws after he missed all seven of his attempts against Indiana at home. Smith told him to stop dribbling at the line. Since he's made the adjustment, he's had two perfect games from the free-throw line (against Penn State and Michigan) and made five out of six against Iowa.
IN FOCUS: An upset of Wisconsin in Madison Feb. 16 would not only give the Gophers a quality win that might catch the eye of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, but it would help restore some of the momentum lost when the Badgers beat Minnesota 63-47 at Williams Arena Feb. 3. But they'll only be able to do that if they can stop Trevon Hughes, who had 20 points and six steals the last time the two teams faced each other.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Dan Coleman, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, C Spencer Tollackson, G Lawrence Westbrook, G Blake Hoffarber. Key Subs — G Lawrence McKenzie, F Damian Johnson.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Two games in a row doesn't make a season; obviously, it's a start." — Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said after his team won its second game in a row against Iowa Feb. 9.
Minnesota 47, Wisconsin 63
Minnesota 92, Northwestern 72
Minnesota 63, Iowa 50
vs. Illinois, Tuesday, Feb. 12.
at Wisconsin, Saturday, Feb. 16.
vs. Michigan, Thursday, Feb. 21.
vs. Penn State, Sunday, Feb. 24.