Gophers MBB: Progress, But Still Frustration

The Gophers have no doubt made strides under first-year head coach Tubby Smith, but it's apparent that Smith is experiencing his share of frustration as well. He could miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years.

Tubby Smith thought for awhile.

He gave sincere thought when asked recently what his team has to do to play well at the Big Ten Tournament, its only chance to get to the NCAA tournament.

With a straight face, Smith, who will likely miss his first NCAA Tournament in 15 seasons, said, "Well, we can't trade anybody."

The coach was joking. Sort of.

Through 30 games the coach still hasn't found a starting rotation that works. All but two players have been starters at some point this season.

Heading into the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers have reason to be proud of their 18-12 finish, twice the number of wins and 10 fewer losses than last season. But battling with a bunch of other Big Ten teams for an automatic bid wasn't the plan to start the season.

Smith said he's happy with the team's progress, although the constant glares and stern tone he employs from the sidelines shows his frustration with Minnesota's output.

And now, the Gophers take a two-game losing streak into Indianapolis, where the up and down Big Ten could very well crown a tournament winner not named Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin. But first things first. Minnesota faces Northwestern in the first round. And with the way they've played lately, the team doesn't have a right to overlook anybody.

NOTES

  • C Spencer Tollackson has been nursing a sore right hand that he injured in practice a few weeks ago. But in a recent practice, the senior tweaked his back. But it didn't seem to affect him offensively early in a March 8 loss at Illinois. He only grabbed one rebound, however, and he struggled, again, at the free throw line.

  • G Blake Hoffarber hates the bench. He fidgets when he's on the sidelines. He made the most of his playing time against Illinois March 8. The freshman scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds, leading the team in both categories and proving that with some time and continued growth he could become a star for the Gophers.

  • G Kevin Payton returned to the starting lineup against Illinois March 8, after seeing limited playing time throughout the season. Payton began the year as the team's starting point guard. But quickly lost the role and played sparingly throughout the season.

  • G Lawrence Westbrook is just six feet tall, and that's being generous. In spite of his size, however, he's been on a tear recently. He's scored in double figures in three of the team's last five games.

  • Minnesota's lack of rebounding in the Illinois game March 8 proved how the team's deficiency in that category has hurt them all season. The Gophers are 4-8 when they're outrebounded by an opponent.

  • G Lawrence McKenzie looked tired after losing to Illinois March 8. The senior had nearly willed the Gophers to three straight come-from-behind victories, but he clearly struggled late against Indiana March 5, after a 26-point performance against Ohio State March 1. As McKenzie goes, so goes the team. A refreshed McKenzie could lead the Gophers to a few victories in the Big Ten Tournament. A tired McKenzie won't be able to help them much down the stretch.

    IN FOCUS: Minnesota has to beat Northwestern next week, if it hopes to make the NCAA Tournament, a long shot. The Gophers have already beaten Northwestern twice, so they'll be confident going into the game. But the Wildcats have continued to get better since the conference schedule began. And they won't back down. Minnesota has lost its last two games, and if Northwestern can keep it close, they have a chance to pull of the upset.

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

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "When Blake Hoffarber is your leading scorer, you've got issues." — Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said after his team lost its 19th straight game against Illinois. The Illini grabbed 45 rebounds compared to Minnesota's 19.

    GAME REVIEW:

    Minnesota 53, Purdue 65

    Minnesota 55, Indiana 69

    Minnesota 58, Illinois 67

    GAME PREVIEW:

    vs. Northwestern, Thursday, March 13.



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