It's hard for Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith to look at the team's 5-4 Big Ten record with any real satisfaction.
Only four weeks ago, Minnesota was 15-1, ranked No. 8 in the country and had become one of the nation's favorite surprise stories after reeling off three consecutive victories to start off league play in arguably the toughest conference in college basketball. The Gophers were being listed among the likes of Indiana and Michigan as a team that could challenge for the Big Ten title.
Now, one month and one four-game skid later, the Gophers are fighting simply to stay above .500 in league play as they head into East Lansing to face No. 12 Michigan State on Wednesday. It's clear this squad has great potential, but for now, it's a team exposed as one that has a lot of hurdles to overcome.
"I'm not pleased with where we are," Smith said, vocalizing once more the frustration that has percolated both from him and his players as a talented team has struggled. "I'm a little disappointed that we aren't in the top echelon. ... So, big picture, we've got to really step it up these last nine games if we expect to reach our goal and our potential."
With the second half of the league schedule set to begin, the No. 18 Gophers have plenty of opportunity to do that and achieve some notable things. Minnesota is No. 9 in the Ratings Percentage Index and No. 3 in strength of schedule, according to CBSSports.com, which eventually will boost its NCAA tournament résumé. Minnesota could be on the brink of finding its way back from the toughest stretch of the season to date. But it also has plenty of work to do.
The team made a much-needed turnaround when it trounced Nebraska 84-65 at Williams Arena on Jan. 29, ending that four-game skid and looking rejuvenated in the process. The Gophers looked more energetic in their half-court offense, creating space with constant screens and movement. Senior forward Rodney Williams reannounced his presence with a season-high 23 points. Turnovers -- Minnesota is 11th in the conference at 13.9 per game -- were limited to only six.
But against Iowa on Sunday, that efficiency evaporated. The Gophers were back to standing around on offense and getting limited production from the bench (which didn't score and didn't even attempt a shot). They required some last-minute heroics from junior guard Austin Hollins just to slide past the unranked Hawkeyes 62-59.
Which team will show up in the second half of the Big Ten season, which includes games at Michigan State, at No. 10 Ohio State (Feb. 20) and home against No. 1 Indiana (Feb. 26)? Some of it will depend on the Gophers' ability to consistently attack zone defenses -- if they aren't able to dictate tempo and get out in transition often -- because most league teams are capable of using them effectively and often.
"We kind of were stagnant again," sophomore point guard Andre Hollins said, shaking his head, after the Iowa game. "They go zone and we kind of just spread it out, we just stand there at times. ... That's just something we need to work on."
Against Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone in a 55-48 loss on Jan. 23, the Gophers were baffled enough to let the game slide away quickly in the second half. But in its past two victories, Minnesota penetrated Nebraska's zone with some efficiency and managed to score at critical times against Iowa. While the Huskers and Hawkeyes are hardly the epitome of strength in the conference, those victories at least sent the Gophers into the second half of the Big Ten season on a positive note.
"It's definitely huge to get that confidence going," Austin Hollins said. "These road games in the Big Ten are never easy, so we've just got to come in with a lot of confidence and play tough because it's not going to be easy at all."
Said Smith of the victory over Iowa: "You can get down and lose your composure and just give up, but I'm really impressed with our guys, the way they recovered from that. And again, that takes a lot of guts, a lot of courage and a lot of character."
The Gophers will need at least that composure and more going forward.