Gophers' ugly ending brings back bad memories of last year

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2012 - 7:23 AM

For the second year in a row, the Gophers' season has fallen apart.

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Gophers coach Tubby Smith doesn't appear to have any answers.

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Early in the season, even with last year's collapse still burning brightly in the minds of disgruntled fans, this Gophers men's basketball team felt distinct.

There were new faces, new attitudes and a fresh slate of games to be played. Last year was a memory upon which to build, not dwell, players said.

But four months later, through the ups and downs, the tweaked lineups and the promising stretches, it feels as though the Gophers have ended up right where they were at this time last year.

Coming into Tuesday night's game at No. 14 Wisconsin, the Gophers have lost five consecutive games and six of seven in February. They have watched a season with NCAA aspirations get pushed far from the tournament bubble.

And to coach Tubby Smith, it feels hauntingly familiar -- similar enough that he wonders how his players could see it any other way. He mentioned how Austin Hollins, Rodney Williams, Ralph Sampson III, Maverick Ahanmisi and Chip Armelin have all seen both seasons spiral downward.

"I do worry about that, and it does concern me," Smith said. "A lot of these guys were part of that, the way we ended the season, with so many losses. ... I would hope that they would understand how sickening that feeling that is. I would like our guys to step up and be leaders, and you don't want to be a part of that again. But obviously, we've lost five in a row now, and it doesn't get any easier. And Wisconsin will be a test of our character and our heart."

It has left Smith searching for answers and considering different approaches. On his weekly radio show on 1500-AM Monday, the coach alluded to changes in the way he handles player situations off the court. Smith said the "urban environment" of Minneapolis has caused distractions for his players, without elaborating as to what those distractions were.

"Here they have access to a whole lot of things ... it happened to a few guys that are not here anymore. And then some that are still here," Smith said on the show.

"That's why you almost have to be a control freak, as a coach at this day and time, as much as you can."

Just like last season when the Gophers lost 10 of their final 11 games, this team has had to deal with a season-ending injury to a key player. Last year, it was Al Nolen, who broke his foot in January. This year, it was the Gophers' physical and psychological leader, Trevor Mbakwe, who tore up his knee in Orlando in late November.

In each case, the team showed some early promise despite the injuries. And in each case, the Gophers were simply unable to sustain that edge.

"I don't really compare this team to last season," Austin Hollins said Sunday after a 69-50 loss to Indiana at Williams Arena. "We have some of the guys back from last year, but I think we're a completely different team."

It might be different. But it might be worse.

This year, the Gophers still had something to reach for down the stretch. And while last year's team stayed competitive until the end, Sunday's loss gave Smith a new impression, one that seemed to baffle and concern him even afterward, as he sat at the podium.

"Just the way we responded," Smith said. "Last year, we responded well and we were competitive. [Sunday], we didn't show that spirit, that fight that you have to have. Usually we bring in somebody to talk to them like a sports psychologist [when things go this poorly], but I didn't because I felt like we were right there.

"You're close every loss, the Wisconsin overtime game [at home]. You're right there in every one of them, so you think, 'It'll go our way. Just be patient.' But it hasn't."

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