In today's Star Tribune: The Gophers are a trendy pick to beat UCLA despite downturn.

The Gophers have their share of flaws this season – that’s obvious.

But there are three I would consider their fatal flaws:

1. Too many turnovers
2. Inconsistent shooting
3. Too much fouling.

We talk a ton about the first two – if the Gophers could only hold onto the ball or make more shots from the outside, their weaknesses in the half-court offense wouldn’t be so exposed, for example.

But the third deserves a lot of attention as well, especially with Trevor Mbakwe missing all but 12 minutes of the last two first halves for Minnesota combined after the sixth-year senior picked up two early fouls in each game (at Purdue at against Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament).

After the Gophers were eliminated in the conference tournament, Mbakwe expressed frustration at himself for getting into quick foul trouble once again, and hurting his team.

Smith, afterwards, second-guessed his decision to sit Mbakwe for the rest of the first half while the Gophers were reeling, but on Tuesday, he defended his coaching move, saying that based on history, his hands were tied.

“Two fouls -- there’s nothing I can do about that, and Trevor can’t play with three,” Smith said. “He’s proven that. Once he gets his first or second foul, he’s winding down defensively. And that’s a real problem for us, because now an opposing team just throws it inside on him and he’s just going to back off.”

The solution, the coach said, is for Mbakwe to be more aggressive earlier in the possession, rather than be forced to foul a guy who is going at the basket.

“That’s one of the things we talk about him all the time -- just keep it off him,” Smith said. “You’re strong enough, physical enough, quick enough, usually you’re playing against a bigger guy – don’t let him catch it. Our defense is designed on if the ball is scoring in the pass. We deny on scoring in the pass. So if you let him get the ball, that means you didn’t do your job to start with. And that’s how he gets in trouble.”

One of the Gophers’ best matchup advantages against UCLA is their strength on the boards – an area where the Bruins are inconsistent, so keeping Mbakwe in the game for the maximum amount of time will be critical.

Other notes from today’s media access:

  • Wally Ellenson, who has had the flu, is expected to join the team in Austin. The freshman is still sick, but no longer contagious. The health of the rest of the team is good.
  • Smith said he’s seen a renewed energy in the last couple of days of practice, which has brought a better intensity all-around. “That’s kind of gotten me happier,” he said. “So it makes it a lot more fun.”
  • The Gophers play the very last first-round game of the NCAA tournament on Friday. Smith said he would much have preferred an earlier slot (let’s be honest, me and my deadline would have too) just because players can get mentally drained after watching a full day of basketball and getting wrapped up in the emotion of other games. “I was always happier when we had the first round, the Thursday game,” Smith said. “That’s always tough because unless you’re just so much more superior than the opposing team, it can be a long day, a long process.
  • With UCLA being a pretty thin team (with Jordan Adams out with a broke foot, coach Ben Howland basically plays six guys), the Gophers’ depth should be a strength, but the bench has struggled in the second half of the season. Still, Smith, who played a shorter bench effectively in the second half of the Gophers’ loss to Illinois, thinks that Minnesota will be better off if they are able to get solid minutes from a variety of reserves. “We haven’t had much success with that lately,” he said. “It might be my fault not playing them as much, but we haven’t seen the production that we’ve needed … we’re better, I think when we’re using our bench and our bench is productive. That’s the way the team is built and that’s the way we’ve been coaching them all year long and when it doesn’t happen, it throws a monkey wrench in what we’re – we usually come out with a loss.

Since we didn’t get Mbakwe on Selection Sunday, a few of his thoughts on making the tournament and UCLA:

Getting chosen by the NCAA selection committee): “It feels great. It’s a sigh of relief. It makes you nervous waiting for your name to be called. But we’re excited for another opportunity. Grateful for it. It’s some fresh air.”

(On the matchup): “I think we have a good matchup with UCLA. Have to out and try to play the way we were in the beginning of the season – tough and physical. I think we have a good chance of winning. UCLA is a very talented team and they score a lot. One of our weaknesses is transition defense so we’ve been working on that a lot lately. It’s nice to get out of the Big Ten grind and low-scoring affairs, maybe get a chance to get out in transition more because that’s when we’re at our best, not settling for half-court offense. End of the game is going to be based on who defends the best.”

(On the hype surrounding the team, with many picking the Gophers to upset UCLA in the first round and go even further): “It says a lot. Being an 11th seed, having people still high on you, especially after the letdown we had as a team. Obviously, coming in we wanted to be a higher seed, but it says a lot that we can’t put too much into it. Obviously UCLA is hearing the same thing—they’re hearing that they’re one of the teams that could be upset and they’re going to take that as material and they’re going to fight.”

(On how the grind of the Big Ten has prepared the Gophers for the NCAA tournament): “We played one of the toughest schedules. We play the Indianas, the Michigans, the Wisconsins of the world, so we know what it takes to win tough games. We know what it feels like … I think the Big Ten definitely prepared us for this situation and it’s nice to finally get out of the Big Ten and play some fresh, some new teams that you’re not very familiar with. And I think it will definitely be good for us.”




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