Future Still a Focus for Gophers

While trying to win now, Tubby Smith probably knows the best days are ahead of him with the arrival of a top recruiting class.

Every time Tubby Smith talks about the Gophers, he discusses its future. High school star Ralph Sampson III will probably start as a freshman. And Canadian all-star prep Devoe Joseph will get his shot to run the team as a first-year point guard.

That's all next season. He's not sure what to make of the present. After suffering a 24-point loss Tuesday against Illinois, one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, he accused his team of faking their emotions before games.

During the pregame shootarounds, they're excited and always seem ready to roll, but they often come out flat. And unfortunately for Smith, his team won't get bigger, stronger, tougher or faster until next year's recruits arrive.

In the meantime, he's trying to figure out how to stop the Gophers, who have lost five of eight, from sliding even further. Well, he can be happy about one thing: On the same night that Minnesota lost by 24 to Illinois, Kentucky, Smith's former team, lost by 41 against Vanderbilt.

But at 15-8 and 5-6 in the Big Ten, Smith is in danger of ending a few streaks. He's taken 14 consecutive teams to the NCAA tourney, and he's won at least 20 games with each of those teams. Losing to Illinois probably crushed Minnesota's slim NCAA tournament hopes. And, to win 20 games, he still needs five wins on a schedule that still includes road games against Indiana, Wisconsin and Purdue in order.

Maybe, it's time to set the bar a little lower. NIT, anyone?

ILLINOIS 84, MINNESOTA 60: The Gophers came out of the locker room after halftime down by six, confident that a first-half push would get them back into the game and give them an expected win over Illinois. But the Fighting Illini had just lost a close game against Indiana in double overtime and had no intention of blowing another one.

Four minutes into the game, the Gophers were down by 13 after Fighting Illini guard Trent Meacham hit two big 3's. Just 10 minutes into the second half, the Gophers had managed to score just six points since halftime, and Illinois was up by 21.

Minnesota hit eight second-half shots and shot just 20.5 percent from the field in the second half. After the game, C Spencer Tollackson stood at the postgame podium with a bewildered look on his face. "We just couldn't shoot," he said.

NOTES

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 Tuesday when they were routed by Illinois. 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.

  • Blake Hoffarber broke Minnesota's record for three-pointers by a freshman when he hit three against Illinois Feb. 12, which gave him 53 for the season. He's hit 47.2 percent of his attempts from the three-point line, where he's most comfortable. Recently, he's played point guard, where he doesn't seem to be able to get into a rhythm. He has three turnovers in his last two games. He probably would have had more, but he went back to the wing after making early mistakes against Iowa Feb. 9 and Illinois Feb. 12.

  • Al Nolen has racked up 19 points in his last two games. That's a sign that he's taken Tubby Smith's cue to shoot more on a team that needs playmakers.

  • Spencer Tollackson has not only improved as a free throw shooter, but he's being more aggressive in the paint. He had 11 free throw attempts in the three games before the Illinois loss. But against the Fighting Illini, he had none, which proves that the senior still has trouble against athletic, physical post players. This time, Shaun Pruitt deterred him from attacking the rim.

    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.

    GAME REVIEW:

    Minnesota 47, Wisconsin 63

    Minnesota 92, Northwestern 72

    Minnesota 63, Iowa 50

    Illinois 84, Minnesota 60

    GAME PREVIEW:

    at Wisconsin, Saturday, Feb. 16.

    vs. Michigan, Thursday, Feb. 21.

    vs. Penn State, Sunday, Feb. 24.


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