When Trevor Mbakwe says it, he doesn’t hesitate, and he makes sure to let people know what they heard wasn’t a mistake.
“We still feel that we’re one of the best” teams in the country, Mbakwe said of his Gophers on Friday. “We still believe.”
Indeed, Minnesota has shown flashes of undeniable talent and competitiveness — particularly with its win over then-No. 1 Indiana a week and a half ago. But in another vein, the Gophers have shown a much more worrisome side, one that falls apart under pressure and allows both positive and negative emotions to overcome them.
While the Gophers — who have been gliding off early season success and five wins against ranked opponents — look to have a spot in the NCAA tournament in hand, their last game of the regular season against Purdue on Saturday and their performance in the Big Ten tournament will have an enormous impact on what, if any, momentum they carry with them.
After the Gophers’ three consecutive wins to start the Big Ten season, there was talk of them competing for the league title. Even coming into this week, it looked like the Gophers had a pretty solid hold on the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament. But after losing to Nebraska — while Iowa beat Illinois — things are looking substantially more precarious. If the Gophers don’t beat the Boilermakers on Saturday, they could be doomed to the No. 9 seed in the conference tournament, a destination that seemed unthinkable two months ago.
“All these games from here on out are important in terms of seeding, and we know that,” Austin Hollins said. “It’s a matter of playing hard because it’s not going to get any easier. Purdue is a really aggressive team, Nebraska has played us really aggressively, and from here on out, in the Big Ten, they’re not going to back down.”
It doesn’t help that the Gophers have some significant issues of their own. While the team seems to have gotten a grip on its most predominant flaw, turnovers — accumulating 10 or fewer in each of the past three games — other concerns are cropping up. The Gophers have managed to shoot just 21.5 percent from three-point range over the past four games and made just 38 percent of their attempts from the field at Nebraska. Free throws have also been cringe-worthy, with Minnesota recording an ugly 54 percent success rate from the stripe in the past two games.
“That’s what it takes to win basketball games, perfecting the little things,” Andre Hollins said. “That day, we didn’t perfect our free throws.”
At the same time, coach Tubby Smith has been toying with the starting lineup — a level of experimentation that is rare and concerning considering that it is March. Against Nebraska, Smith discarded the starting five that beat No. 1 Indiana (he hadn’t felt the need to shake things up at all after two consecutive blowouts).
Instead, he opted for the same senior night tribute lineup — Julian Welch and Andre Ingram along with Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins — that worked against lowly Penn State but didn’t include one of his most dynamic scorers, Andre Hollins.
“We didn’t win, so it didn’t work,” Smith said after the Nebraska game. “It’s not like we’ve got an offensive juggernaut with whoever we put in the game. I mean, they’re struggling to score.”
Smith said on Friday that he would “probably” go back to the original five against Purdue — Joe Coleman and Andre Hollins replacing Welch and Ingram — but the head coach didn’t want to make any promises. Because while Mbakwe and the players might look at the Gophers as one of the best teams in the nation, it’s abundantly clear from Smith’s tone that he’s as frustrated as ever.
“We haven’t really reached our potential,” he said. Referring to the Nebraska game, he noted, “If we get five free throws, I’m in a different mood. We’re all in a different mood. But we didn’t. We lost.”
And with just one regular-season game left and the hot-and-cold squad still in flux, it’s hard not to describe his team with the same word: lost.