describes Sunday's game at Williams Arena with Illinois as "huge."
"They just beat the No. 1-ranked team [Indiana] and we beat them down there, but they're going to come in here feeling pretty good about themselves," said the Gophers men's basketball coach.
"We didn't play very well at all up at Michigan State, and we haven't played [well]. We won two games, we've lost six of our last eight games, we haven't been playing well. Fortunately we got the win against Iowa. We played terrible in the last three minutes of the game, again, at Michigan State. We have our work cut out for us."
Asked if during his coaching career he had a team like this season's Gophers, who started out 15-1 against one of the toughest schedules in the country and then lost five of seven, Smith said he had that experience while coaching at Kentucky.
"Unfortunately, we need our guys to step up and be hungrier and play harder, those are the things that have to get done," he said. "We knew we were playing against some very good teams in the league in our three losses we had on the road, then what got away from us was Michigan here and the Northwestern game [there].
"That puts you in a funk when you have a losing streak like that. We thought we had corrected some things, but I knew there were things that we hadn't corrected that we needed to do a better job of."
Motivation a balancing act
Smith said he has to walk a fine line with his players. "As a coach you have to balance the scales of being in their face and still keeping them pumped up and still keeping them believing in themselves and making them feel confident," he said. "But you still have to let them know that we still didn't play that well, even in the wins we had."
Smith said that simply playing well is not good enough when better is expected.
"We expected to be a lot better and we're not," he said. "There's key people that we have, it's like 1-on-1, I have to stop you, so I have to do the job here, and we didn't do the job the other night against Michigan State.
"I'm not happy and I don't expect us to be happy. It will be a huge game [against Illinois]. Every game is huge now."
Smith said it is disappointing that the Gophers have lost to good teams.
"We knew coming into this season that we had to stay healthy, which we have so far, and that's why we've won our share of games," he said. "We've been pretty consistent in our lineup in the people we're playing. I thought our bench played better in the game at Michigan State. I have a lot more confidence in them and they'll play a lot more minutes, because we need them to step up.
"I need Oto [Osenieks] and Mo [Walker] getting better, Elliott [Eliason] is playing well, we need to get Julian [Welch] playing better. Wally [Ellenson] was moving along there, but he strained his Achilles tendon. Those are key people."
Smith is not pleased with how players are spreading the ball. "Rodney [Williams] and Trevor [Mbakwe] need to share the basketball better," he said. "That's something I saw was the dropping in our assists. We're still one of the top assists teams in the league, but we have to do a better job of finding the open man."
Despite their 5-5 Big Ten record, Smith still believes the Gophers can finish the season strong. "We know we're still in [the conference race], but we can't have any more [losses], we can't do what we did against Michigan State, we can't do what we did against Northwestern, we can't do what we did against Michigan. We have to win those games," he said.
No doubt this team has been one of the biggest disappointments of Smith's 22 seasons as a head coach, because he expected a lot more.
Academics first for Gophers
If you ever wondered if classroom attendance is important for Gophers athletes, look no further than Mbakwe, who missed Friday's practice while he attended a class that he needs to pass to get a master's degree.
The new scoreboard at Williams Arena is not only a big plus for the fans, but Smith can use it in practice to show players replays and help correct errors.
Smith was also out in Las Vegas on Thursday scouting 6-9 Gavin Schilling, who plays for Findlay Prep in Nevada. Schilling, who could start for the Gophers next season, is also considering Michigan State, Villanova and UCLA.
White to join D League on Monday
Former Hopkins standout Royce White passed a physical with the Houston Rockets and will report to Rio Grande of the NBA Development League on Monday.
White told FOX 26 in Houston, "I always like to get in there with [Rockets team physician] Dr. [Jim] Muntz and get a physical done and just see how I'm doing as far as my heart and things like. It takes me back to that reassurance I got after I first started having panic attacks, that I'm healthy and OK."
• Former Twins star Francisco Liriano lost a ton of guaranteed money from the Pittsburgh Pirates after breaking a bone in his right (non-pitching) arm. Liriano had agreed to a two-year, $12.75 million contract on Dec. 21, but before he had a chance to sign, he broke his arm in a bathroom fall. On Friday, he signed a renegotiated one-year deal worth a guaranteed $1 million. He has incentives in the contract so that if he stays healthy, he can earn the entire $12.75 million over two years.
• The Vikings have signed defensive back Rod Williams, who has 11 interceptions in three seasons with Edmonton of the Canadian Football League. He played college football at Alcorn State.
• Timberwolves assistant GM Rob Babcock has two sons with jobs in basketball with Chris now working with the San Antonio Spurs in player development after four years as a special assistant with the Texas Longhorns, while brother Nate, after three years as a special assistant at Michigan State, has taken a job as an assistant coach at Grand Valley State.
• The Gophers football program added a walk-on in Aaron Roundtree, who is from Eagan but was a defensive back for North Dakota State College of Science and has three years of eligibility left.
• Bobby Knight can make a claim that not many college basketball coaches can make. He has two players who were on the same Indiana team who became NBA head coaches: Mike Woodson of the Knicks and Randy Wittman of the Wizards, a team playing a lot better since former No. 1 overall draft choice John Wall became healthy enough to play. Woodson was a senior in 1980, Wittman's freshman year at IU.
• Dartmouth of the Ivy League was able to recruit two local football players in St. Thomas Academy's Danny McManus and Charlie Miller of Totino-Grace.