For the Gophers men's basketball team, the biggest stretch of the season is ahead.
Wait, didn't we just do that? you might be asking yourself.
Ah, but that's how it works in a conference such as the Big Ten, where every opponent represents a threat and every game becomes bigger than the last. That's only made more true now for the No. 9 Gophers, who -- after dropping their past two games, to No. 2 Indiana on the road and No. 5 Michigan at home -- find themselves in dire need of a spark to boost them back onto the right track.
"We've just got to retune," point guard Andre Hollins said after the 83-75 loss to the Wolverines on Thursday night. "We've got to put this loss behind us and move on."
The problem is that these next two games -- both on the road, at Northwestern and Wisconsin -- suddenly look tougher than previously expected. Northwestern is coming off a victory at Illinois, a significant result despite the fact that the Illini are crashing in conference play. And the Badgers are the most surprising team in the Big Ten so far, bouncing back from four nonconference losses to enter Saturday as the lone remaining unbeaten team in conference play.
"There's a lot of balance in this league," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said last week. "So it's a matter of who gets hot and who stays healthy through the course of the season, or who's playing well."
Right now, for the most part, that's not the Gophers. In consecutive games, they have layered periods of intensity and stellar shooting with stretches of lax defense, miscommunication and passive play, digging first-half holes that have proven too deep to overcome.
The sudden trend of Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde versions of the team had Smith openly questioning his players' efforts Thursday, alluding to the idea that bad practices have led to these poor showings.
"There's no reason to panic, but I'm just really disappointed in two games, with the way we've played in the first half," he said. "And trying to make a comeback, that's just a -- well, I really don't know what to call it. It's just disappointing."
These two road games present an opportunity to shake off harmful habits and refocus -- but they also present the hazard of falling into a legitimate skid. The Gophers already defeated Northwestern once this season, but the Wildcats didn't go down without harassing the Gophers into an ugly first half. Northwestern's tricky Princeton offense and 1-3-1 defensive zone gave the Gophers fits at the start, and when the Gophers saw similar features against Michigan, they still were clueless as to solving them.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, plays a similar style in that it slows the flow of the game down to a trickle, forcing opponents to defend for long stretches and taking away the fast break. That strategy has proven effective against the athletic Gophers, who were held to 10 fast-break points against Michigan and four at Indiana.
Two victories are in no way out of the Gophers' reach and could go a long way toward mending the issues that have been exposed. But to get there, the Gophers will need to harness the Jekyll and discard the Hyde.
"I think you could take it both ways," guard Joe Coleman said. "It could be a positive thing because it shows we can rally and try to make a comeback. But also we shouldn't put ourselves in those certain situations."