Dan Coleman (Jim Mone/AP)
As the glow of the Gophers’ 10-1 start has faded into a struggling January, head coach Tubby Smith has become more up front in challenging his players to step up.
After their recent loss at Ohio State, the Gophers didn’t want to get off the team bus to talk to reporters.
What started out as a magical season for a team that wasn’t good enough to be labeled as mediocre last season has quickly been labeled locally as average results from an average squad. Still, average is an upgrade over adjectives used to describe the Gophers in recent seasons.
Last season, Minnesota longed for media attention. They got plenty of it once Tubby Smith arrived on campus.
But now, the hype train that started out in Minneapolis earlier this season when the Gophers got off to a 10-1 start screeched to a halt when the team lost three out of its first five games in January.
Smith’s frustration has been vocalized recently. The normally composed coach picked up his first technical foul of the year against Ohio State. But prior to that, he’d openly stated that his top player, senior forward Dan Coleman, might not have a lot of fight in him. And in one-on-one meetings, he questioned why some of his players hadn’t achieved their goals set in the preseason and had squandered key opportunities.
These days, the Gophers are perplexed.
The Gophers, 9-22 last season, had a taste of success before falling back to earth with a tough start in the Big Ten in 2008. Every game it becomes clearer: these Gophers are better than last season’s troubling bunch, but they’re just not in the upper tier of the Big Ten.
The Gophers have a chance to prove that theory wrong with Wisconsin and a gaggle of middle-of-the-road Big Ten foes coming up.
Smith’s greatest challenge might be convincing the Gophers they belong on the same floor with the league’s elite. Confidence, rising to near-peak levels in nonconference play, waned significantly. If the Gophers get it back, they have a chance to make a push.
G Al Nolen’s absence against Michigan State Jan. 19 due to a right thigh bruise was noticeable. The freshman, who also leads the Big Ten in steals, held Michigan State G Drew Neitzel to just four points in an earlier matchup. Without Nolen in the game, he hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points in their most recent game. But against Ohio State Jan. 26, Nolen went scoreless, after shooting an air ball and hearing the crowd jeer him every time he touched the ball after that.
G Lawrence Westbrook led the nation in scoring with 40 points per game average during his junior year at Chandler High School in Chandler, Arizona. For the Gophers, he’s averaging 7.3 points per game, after averaging just over five points per game during nonconference games.
Spencer Tollackson was shooting just 40.4 percent through the first six games of Big Ten play. His poor free throw shooting (0 for 7) cost the Gophers a shot at beating Indiana Jan. 17.
F Jamal Abu-Shamala and F Damian Johnson have battled for the starting small forward spot. When he wants to apply defensive pressure early, Tubby Smith enlists the services of defensive specialist Johnson. When he needs scoring right away, he goes with Abu-Shamala. The only problem is, Johnson has outplayed Abu-Shamala offensively, too, which begs the question: Should Johnson be the permanent starter?
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Dan Coleman, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, C Spencer Tollackson, G Lawrence Westbrook, G Lawrence McKenzie. Key Subs — G Al Nolen; F Blake Hoffarber; F Damian Johnson.
IN FOCUS: Wisconsin has the talent and poise to beat a lot of teams. The Badgers use their speed (Trevon Hughes, Michael Flowers) and size (Marcus Landry, Brian Butch) effectively, while the Gophers will have to use their full-court press early in hopes of scoring an upset.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “It probably did cost us ... that’s the way it goes.” — Tubby Smith on picking up his first technical foul against Ohio State Jan. 26.
Minnesota 60, Indiana 65
Minnesota 73, Michigan State 78
Minnesota 60, Ohio State 75
at Michigan, Thursday, Jan. 31
vs. Wisconsin, Sunday, Feb. 3.
at Northwestern, Wednesday, Feb. 6
vs. Iowa, Saturday, Feb. 9