Familiar feeling for Gophers going into Hoosiers rematch

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2012 - 1:16 AM

Once again, their season is teetering on the brink, after a losing streak has knocked them off the NCAA tournament bubble.

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Gophers guard Maverick Ahanmisi put up a shot against Indiana in January. The Gophers' victory at Indiana provided the team with a shot in the arm, one it could use again going into the rematch at Williams Arena.

Photo: Darron Cummings, Associated Press

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Six weeks ago, the Gophers were drowning.

They had lost four in a row and were struggling to get over the hump, and things were looking pretty bleak.

Then they played Indiana.

Sound familiar?

"When we played them the first time, our backs were against a wall, and that's how it is now," junior guard Julian Welch said. "We're definitely looking to get a W under our belts. It's do or die time now."

In that first game at Indiana on Jan. 12, the Gophers pulled off a major upset over a team ranked in the top 10 at the time, a victory that spurred a three-game winning streak, put the team in the NCAA tournament conversation and inserted Tubby Smith in Coach of the Year chatter.

It changed the immediate course of the season, giving the Gophers a spark and some greatly needed confidence to build on. They tore past Penn State and Northwestern, and after a hard-fought loss to Michigan State, they took care of Illinois in overtime.

But six games and five losses later, things have slipped away once more, and the Gophers' recent play has pushed them to the brink of sure elimination from NCAA tournament at-large consideration. The surge seems long ago; instead, the Gophers again seem like they are drowning.

They have lost four in a row and are struggling to get over the hump, and things are looking pretty bleak.

Going into Sunday's game against Indiana, the Gophers are hoping they can get the same spark from the visiting Hoosiers, something Minnesota needs now even more than they did in early January.

"We need it bad," Smith said. "We need a whole lot of sparks. We need a fire. We need flames. We need a flamethrower on us at this point."

A key difference: In that first Hoosiers matchup, the Gophers still were searching for their identity -- trying to find the right players and the right style. Now, it seems the team is still looking for those things, but in the meantime, the Gophers have formed a tangible pattern.

It's not so much that the Gophers need to find an identity; rather, they need to change it.

Two characteristics that have plagued the Gophers all season is their inability to finish games and their lack of leadership -- with upperclassmen Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III inconsistent at times and often not able or not willing to pull the charge. There's a good chance the two issues are connected.

"I need Rodney and Ralph to make plays," Smith said. "They need to get more rebounds, they need to be more aggressive getting to the basket to get fouled. If that doesn't happen, we have a real dilemma."

Without that leading presence, the Gophers simply look like what they are, a young team that doesn't know how to finish opponents off. That appeared to be the case again against No. 6 Michigan State on Wednesday, a game the Gophers led most of the second half before collapsing at the finish for a 66-61 loss.

"[It's] just lapses," Welch said of the breakdowns the Gophers have had in stretches. "We're a young team. When something doesn't go right, we kind of put our heads down, so we kind of talked about that. We just need to be level-headed the entire time and we need to just not have so many ups and downs, highs and lows."

Incredibly, it appears the Gophers still have time to turn it around. They have three regular-season games remaining; after facing the No. 23 Hoosiers at Williams Arena, they travel to Kohl Center to take another crack at No. 16 Wisconsin, a team the Gophers took to overtime before losing 68-61 at home earlier this month.

"A mental spark is exactly what we need," Sampson said, "to kind of refresh everything, refocus and redirect yourselves and our energies to get these next couple of wins."

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