The Gophers men's basketball team is no longer full of inexperienced, starry-eyed players. With the exception of freshman guard and spot reserve Wally Ellenson, they all know the challenges of a long, rugged Big Ten season and the importance of staying vigilant against each capable opponent.
But that doesn't make maintaining that sustained level of intensity easy. At times, most players need reminders. And for the 12th-ranked Gophers, after playing two top-five teams in a week, that message came loud and clear, in the form of their second consecutive loss, their second consecutive collapse and the first public criticism of their effort from coach Tubby Smith.
With another significant road trip looming, however -- starting with Wednesday night's game at Northwestern -- absorbing that reminder will be critical.
"I've seen them refocus," Smith said of the team's practices since losing first at Indiana 88-81, then against Michigan 83-75 at home. "They understand what they did wrong and it's a matter of correcting it. We did some things, just correcting our ball-handling and our passing and stuff like that, so I have seen some improvement."
With Northwestern (11-8, 2-4 Big Ten) first on the docket before Minnesota travels to Wisconsin (13-6, 4-2), however, the Gophers face a potential trap game and will need their full complement of players to exude a new energy.
The Gophers (15-3, 3-2) have lost each of their past four games in Evanston, Ill., and struggled early before pulling away in the second half for a 69-51 victory when Northwestern came to Williams Arena on Jan. 6. While the Wildcats are ninth in the league standings and playing without their best player in the injured Drew Crawford, the unique style of play of coach Bill Carmody's team makes them tough to beat.
Combining a Princeton-like offense that utilizes constant motion and lots of back-door cuts with a 1-3-1 zone defense that has given the Gophers fits have been the key in delivering a 68-54 victory over then-ranked Illinois on Thursday and scaring then-No. 2 Indiana before losing 67-59 on Sunday.
"I tell our guys and I think our guys recognize that we can play with anybody," Carmody said. "I think if we had played a little better, we could have beaten [Indiana]. ... Now we go [against] Minnesota, and I know we can beat them. And I know they can beat us -- but it just seems that there isn't a big gap, I don't think there is, talent-wise, from certain teams to another team. And if there is, if there is a gap, it's not so great that you can't overcome it every night."
Smith knows how slim that margin of error is after the Gophers came up short against then-No. 5 Michigan. Unprompted after the game, he brought up what he called a "disappointing" practice the day before the Michigan game, saying "it raised its ugly head" come gametime.
And after two games that included at least one extended stretch of lackadaisical play, shoddy transition defense and moments of miscommunication, the message seemed to fully saturate the sullen locker room Thursday night. Elite squads such as Indiana and Michigan are certainly capable of beating anyone, the Gophers included. As it was, the Gophers didn't give themselves the opportunity to win.
Smith pointed out that senior forward Rodney Williams (knee and hip) and sophomore guard Joe Coleman (ankle) -- two players who struggled against Michigan, particularly in the first half -- were banged up with lingering injuries from the Indiana game. Sophomore point guard Andre Hollins, though, didn't want to use that as an excuse.
"We've been beating ourselves and that's the bottom line," Hollins said. "The good teams don't beat themselves."
Learning from this early lesson -- perhaps conveniently coming in games the Gophers could afford to lose -- will make all the difference in whether the Gophers make a splash in the league or fall in the manner of previously disappointing Big Ten seasons.
"It was a tough game for us," Hollins said of the loss to the Wolverines. "We're going to have to learn from it, bounce back, go harder in practice and focus on the little things."