WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. – In the midst of the massacre, Trevor Mbakwe sat on the bench and watched.
After picking up his second foul against Purdue with more than 15 minutes left in the first half left, Mbakwe — the Gophers’ best offensive option of late — was sat down by coach Tubby Smith. Mbakwe could only witness the Gophers’ seven-point deficit implode into a 30-9 gap, an impossible-to-overcome chasm in a 89-73 defeat Saturday.
In the sixth-year senior’s place, no one else stood up. Not sophomore guard Andre Hollins, who finished with 24 points and nine assists but didn’t make a single basket until there was 2 minutes, 34 seconds remaining in the first half. Not senior forward Rodney Williams (13 points, six rebounds), who along with the rest of the team was abused inside by Purdue (15-16, 8-10 Big Ten), which outscored Minnesota 42-28 in the paint.
When the contributions started trickling in after halftime, it was too late — Minnesota (20-11, 8-10), unable to get key stops all afternoon, already was locked into tracks that led, full speed, to a shellacking in their final regular-season game of the year.
“It’s a learning process, the whole season is a learning process, but by this time we need to really get it together,” Andre Hollins said. “Because it’s crunch time.”
The Gophers’ second consecutive loss, paired with Iowa’s 74-60 victory over Nebraska, pushed them down to a No. 9 seed in the league tournament — the same spot Minnesota has landed the previous two years, and a prospect that seemed unthinkable in December.
But a team with some talented pieces hasn’t been able to put it together for more than a couple of games in the Big Ten. On Saturday, the Gophers had some successes — they limited their turnovers to 13, they pushed the tempo and they were able to shoot 39.1 percent from three-point range, an area in which they have struggled. But when things fell apart, no one jumped in to stop the bleeding.
Including Smith, who called only one timeout in a first-half span where the Gophers were getting blitzed off the dribble by Terone Johnson (12 points, five assists) and Rapheal Davis (18 points, four assists) and bullied on the inside by A.J. Hammons (14 points, six rebounds) and D.J. Byrd (18 points, seven rebounds). And even if the foul-plagued Mbakwe (six points, 10 rebounds) could have done anything to help, Smith decided to keep him on the bench.
“He didn’t do much today,” Smith said. “He was 1-for-6 in the first half, so he wasn’t much of a spark. They threw the ball in the post and Trevor’s been struggling defending the post all year. … So no, I didn’t consider putting him back in.”
Leadership — of the lack of it — has been the evident elephant in the room through most of the conference season. After the game, Andre Hollins said it has to be a team effort.
“We just need to do it collectively,” he said. “If everybody’s playing well, there’s no need to just have a specific one person or two persons.”
But the problem isn’t when the Gophers are playing well. It’s when they aren’t.
In the second half, when shots started falling, the feeling was contagious. Minnesota even managed to pull within seven at 53-46 with 14:15 left on the clock on a flurry of threes from Andre Hollins and junior guard Austin Hollins. Suddenly, everyone was in a groove, at least offensively. But when the squad was reeling in the first half, no one wanted to be that guy.
It’s hard to blame them, when Mbakwe’s early struggles were enough for Smith to lose faith in him. Without the leaders being treated like leaders, the chances of them rising to that role dramatically drop.
“Going into tournament time, we’re going to have to figure out those one or two guys that can be there for us instead of everybody going out there and trying to kind of force the issue,” Williams said.
It’s a tough time to find a leader, especially with the Gophers scheduled to face either Purdue or Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, and not just for the last couple games,” Smith said. “Just finding some consistency and some unity. We share the ball, it’s not like we’re playing selfishly.”
Maybe it’s time they should.