AUSTIN, TEXAS – The Good Gophers showed up for their opening game of the NCAA tournament on Friday night, an 83-63 dismantling of the UCLA Bruins. We haven’t seen that Gophers team too often lately.
They replaced their alter ego, the Good Grief Gophers. We’ve seen a lot of that team.
“I know sometimes we’re frustrating to watch,” senior Trevor Mbakwe said.
You think? The Gophers marketing department should have stood at the doors of Williams Arena and passed out straitjackets before the season opener. This team drove fans batty, which is quite an accomplishment since heartbreak and dismay serve as a default setting for Gophers faithful.
This group is tough to figure out. Sometimes they play loose and confident. Other times they look tentative and lifeless. Some games they attack on offense and push the tempo. And some games they operate at a snail’s pace and stand around on offense.
They either play with great energy and joy or look as if they’re ready for the season to end.
“I wish I could tell why it goes like that,” senior Rodney Williams said.
“It’s hard to explain,” junior Austin Hollins added.
Their Jekyll and Hyde personality made it virtually impossible to predict which team would show up for the tournament. Their two-month slide and toothless finish to the regular season made them an enigma. They drew an 11th seed from the selection committee, but Vegas and national pundits made them favorites in their matchup against the Bruins.
The loss of UCLA’s second-leading scorer, Jordan Adams, to a broken foot contributed to that sudden surge of optimism, but it also indicated that people weren’t ready to close the book on the Gophers just yet.
“We were tired of losing,” Hollins said.
Well, that explanation works too. But now they must prove that their performance on Friday wasn’t just a one-game blip, that they didn’t just beat up on a UCLA team that looked disinterested and nonchalant and offered little resistance.
They face a much sterner test in No. 3 seed Florida on Sunday with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16. The Gators have terrific guards, skilled post players and an elite coach in Billy Donovan. And they smother opponents on defense, ranking third nationally in scoring defense (53.7 points).
The Gophers need to play better than they did on Friday in order to extend their season another week. But any assessment of their chances should focus on their mind-set as much as individual matchups. Which team will show up? The confident one or the one that looks tighter than a snare drum?
“We don’t want to give up wearing Gophers jerseys yet,” Mbakwe said. “When we’re throwing the first punch rather than on our heels, we’re a lot better team.”
They played with that urgency against the Bruins once they steadied themselves after a sluggish start. They embraced a blueprint that proved successful early in the season.
The Hollins tandem, Andre and Austin, made 9 of 14 three-pointers and combined for 44 points and 12 assists. Mbakwe and Elliott Eliason established an inside presence in the first half. And the Gophers found a desired tempo while also taking care of the ball (11 turnovers).
“We haven’t played well at all in a while,” coach Tubby Smith reminded, “so it was good to see our guys having fun, playing the right way, sharing the ball, taking care of the basketball.”
For one night, the focus shifted away from Smith’s job status and the disappointment of a 5-11 finish. The Gophers finally could talk about playing well again. They seemed to enjoy that.
“I think it definitely renews everybody’s idea of how we’re supposed to play and how we used to play,” Austin Hollins said.
We’ve seen this team before, but the question is, will it stick around?
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org