Scoggins: Tubby's Gophers better cross three T's to sidestep crisis

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 25, 2013 - 11:44 PM
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Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith yells to his team during a game against Northwestern.

Photo: Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

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Somebody asked Tubby Smith on Friday if his Gophers basketball team is experiencing a "crisis situation." Smith didn't scoff, roll his eyes or move on to the next question. Instead, he agreed.

"It's always a crisis situation if you don't play with an urgency every time you go out," he said. "When you lose, it's always a crisis."

My how things have changed. Remember those warm-and-fuzzy days when Smith gushed about how much he loves his team and national pundits lauded the Gophers as a potential Final Four team? That was only two weeks ago.

Once a top-10 team, the Gophers suddenly find their season at a crossroads. Their slipshod performance in Wednesday's 55-48 loss at Northwestern triggered a cascade of frustration, negativity and finger-pointing. And that was just inside their own locker room.

They appear on the verge of coming unglued. They've lost three consecutive Big Ten games. Players are bickering on the court and tweeting about getting "thrown under the bus." Their coach called his point guard "scared" and used the term "losers" in his latest postgame rebuke.

Inspiring stuff, huh?

This is gut-check time for the Gophers. They play at rival Wisconsin on Saturday and anything less than their best effort of the season would be an indictment on their competitiveness and resiliency. Because if not now, then when?

"It can get pretty ugly when you're not winning," Smith said. "No one is happy."

The Gophers have played at a high level for long enough stretches that their success shouldn't be considered a fluke. They have enough talent to be a good team. They just look lost now.

They still have time to pull themselves together and save their season from becoming a major disappointment, but they need improvement in three key areas. We'll call them the three T's -- turnovers, temperament and Tubby.

The Gophers lead the Big Ten in turnovers, averaging 15.5 in conference games. They can't win being that careless, at least not consistently against good competition, or if point guard Andre Hollins commits seven turnovers as he did Wednesday against the Wildcats.

Too often the Gophers handle the ball as if it's a live hand grenade, and their mistakes are not always the result of aggressive play. They get called for traveling 30 feet from the basket against token pressure. Routine entry passes into the post get deflected. Those kinds of mistakes suck the life out of a team because they're wasted possessions.

Whether that's to blame or something more, the Gophers exhibited an air of indifference at times the past three games, which is strange because they purportedly wanted to prove themselves against two elite teams in Indiana and Michigan. They just sort of became bystanders as their opponents dictated the action.

Every team endures lapses in focus and effort, even good teams. But the Gophers appeared completely disinterested against Northwestern in what was supposed to be their bounce-back game. They looked nothing like the resilient group that took a punch from Michigan State and withstood a hard charge at Illinois. What happened to their competitive fight?

That falls on everyone, particularly Tubby, but the Gophers need Rodney Williams to assume the role of senior leader and take control on the floor, too. Maybe that's not his nature, but he's the team's fifth-leading scorer (10.2 points) in conference games and is averaging only one more rebound per game than his point guard. He needs to become more engaged because his teammates follow his lead.

Smith has tried pushing different buttons to motivate Williams and others, but the public browbeating has grown tiresome. Perhaps the most disconcerting development from Wednesday's loss was Smith's assertion that it's "tough to simulate" Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone defense in practice.

Actually it's not. It's tough to simulate the combination of size and skill of Indiana forward Cody Zeller, or the athleticism of Michigan point guard Trey Burke. But the Gophers could have watched tape of Northwestern and then used their scout team to simulate the 1-3-1 in practice. They knew what was coming and had five practice days to prepare for it, but they still looked flummoxed. There's no excuse for that.

Losing exposes warts and stirs emotions, but good teams find a way out of tough times. The Gophers find themselves in that spot now. It's up to them to decide whether this becomes a true crisis or just a bump in the road.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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