Smith seeking formula that ends the struggles

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 13, 2011 - 12:22 AM

Tubby Smith challenged his team with pointed comments following a fourth consecutive loss. Against the Hawkeyes, he will see if the motivation works.

The Gophers' Ralph Sampson III tried to defend Ohio State standout Jared Sullinger last week at Williams Arena.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Tubby Smith sat at a table in Williams Arena and discussed the problems affecting Gophers men's basketball at length Saturday.

He identified turnovers, bad shots and other mishaps that have contributed to the program's first four-game losing streak since he arrived in Minnesota in 2007. He talked about switching his starting lineup, again. And he pleaded for more production from key players.

But he offered no solutions.

Like his players, the coach is eager to find the answers necessary to correct the Gophers' recent downturn, one that could continue when they visit suddenly inspired Iowa on Sunday.

Singling out individual players after a 71-62 home loss against Illinois on Thursday, a tactic that prompted hoopla on airwaves and message boards, was an attempt to shake up a team that is not responding the way he expects it to, Smith said.

"I won't call it calling out. ... But when the frustration sets in and you keep teaching guys to do certain things, you get concerned," he said. "And maybe that might be a way to inspire and motivate them."

Ralph Sampson III, one of the team's best players through this difficult stretch, said his coach's words -- ones the team heard in the locker room before Smith spoke to reporters Thursday -- should serve their purpose.

"When someone challenges you, you definitely have to not challenge him back but answer him," he said. "I feel that we all have been working hard trying to get better in our game and trying to make the team better. ... But if anyone ever challenges you ... you have to answer him and even answer him and continue to answer him so he can't challenge you the same way again. That's how you grow as a player."

Blake Hoffarber agreed.

He said Smith's remarks about his effort against the Illini -- the coach questioned the senior guard's shot selection after the loss -- were meant to address issues that the Gophers have to fix to avoid a longer slide.

"You always want your coach trying to find what's going wrong and obviously, we've lost four in a row so we've gotta start listening to him and figuring out, realizing what's going wrong and how to fix that," Hoffarber said.

But Smith admitted he is trying to balance criticism and encouragement.

"It's a fine line, and winning helps," he said.

Hoffarber said he understands Smith's approach during such a frustrating period.

"I don't take it personally at all. It's kind of positive criticism, almost, constructive," he said. "He wants us to be the best that we can be. When he says that stuff, some fans might think, 'Oh, man, he shouldn't have said that.' But I think he's just trying to build us up to be better players."

It's not easy to point to one thing that the Gophers need to eradicate.

They have committed 57 turnovers during their four-game losing skid. Hoffarber has an 11-to-18 assist-to-turnover ratio since he moved to starting point guard Jan. 26 following the loss of senior Al Nolen to a broken right foot.

Colton Iverson, a critical player in last season's run to the Big Ten tournament final, has scored three points this month. And Rodney Williams, who has scored at least 10 points only five times this season, is 6-for-34 from three-point range.

Smith said the Gophers need Williams and Iverson to produce more.

Still, Smith said he has to remember that he is dealing with a lot of young players, too. Three freshmen play significant minutes.

"What our problem is I just gotta be more patient because we just have a young team, an inexperienced team," he said.

The Gophers are so desperate for answers that Smith said he is considering a return to a starting lineup with all three post players -- Sampson, Iverson and Trevor Mbakwe. In addition, freshman Maverick Ahanmisi and sophomore walk-on Dominique Dawson will log more minutes, Smith said, due to the inconsistent play from some of his veterans.

"We've got to find a way to make it with what we have," he said. "We don't have Al Nolen. We don't have some of those guys we thought would be here."

Despite Smith's tough love and the recent losses, the Gophers haven't lost their confidence, Sampson said.

"I feel that as a team that we can get out of this little hole that we're in right now," Sampson said.

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