Hartman: To make NCAAs, Gophers must fend off Iowa, Illinois

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 18, 2013 - 6:41 AM

Rarely do more than seven Big Ten teams go to the tournament, and the Gophers' ugly loss Sunday hurt them.

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Iowa’s Eric May drew a foul as he stole the ball from Andre Hollins, who had a forgettable game (three points, 1-for-8 shooting).

The Gophers basketball team didn't help its chances of getting a good seed or even making the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-2010 season when it was embarrassed in a 72-51 loss to the Hawkeyes in Iowa City on Sunday.

All of a sudden two "hot" teams in Illinois (19-8, 6-7 Big Ten) or Iowa (17-9, 6-7) could replace the Gophers (18-8, 6-7) in sixth place in the conference.

After the loss, which could eliminate the Gophers' NCAA chances if the selection committee takes only six or seven Big Ten teams, coach Tubby Smith called the performance the worst of this season and maybe the worst performance he has seen in years.

How did Smith come to this conclusion?

The Gophers scored 23 points in the first 8 minutes, 6 seconds of the game, grabbing an early 15-point lead. It would take them 28:05 to score another 23, at which point they trailed 65-49 with 3:09 remaining and were on their way to their seventh loss in 10 games. To make it worse, the Gophers scored two points in the first seven minutes of the second half after trailing 34-29 at halftime.

The Gophers were unable to produce anything once Iowa shifted to a 2-3 zone, and two of their starters, senior forward Rodney Williams and junior guard Austin Hollins, suffered apparent injuries that drastically limited their effectiveness.

Hollins scored 10 first-half points, finishing with 14, but didn't look the same after taking a hard fall early in the second half. Williams played only 10 minutes, didn't attempt a field goal and sat out the entire second half after reinjuring his shoulder.

February shift

Looking back to the positive portion of the Gophers season, the team was 5-4 in Big Ten play on Feb. 6, good for sixth in the conference and one game behind Wisconsin and Ohio State in the loss column. The Gophers were ranked 18th in the country. Meanwhile, at that time, Iowa was 3-6 in conference play and in ninth place while Illinois was 2-7 and in 10th place.

But since then, Minnesota has dropped and Iowa and Illinois have moved up, and now the three programs are in a battle to see who can finish in the top half of the conference and get an NCAA bid.

The NCAA seldom invites more than seven Big Ten teams to the tournament. Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State are the top five teams in the Big Ten and are sure to be invited.

So the final spots will be fought for between the Gophers, Illinois and Iowa, depending on how they finish the season. The Gophers didn't do themselves any good by losing to Iowa and Illinois this month.

The Gophers lost 61-50 at Michigan State on Feb. 6, then lost to Illinois 57-53 at home on Feb. 10. They defeated Wisconsin 58-53 in overtime at Williams Arena on Thursday, but were destroyed at Iowa on Sunday.

Iowa lost at Wisconsin 74-70 in double overtime on Feb. 6 but has since won three in a row: at home against Northwestern 71-57, at Penn State 74-72, and defeating the Gophers on Sunday. It's the Hawkeyes' first three-game conference winning streak in six years.

Illinois is on a four-game winning streak, defeating No. 1 Indiana 74-72 at home on Feb. 7, the Gophers at Williams Arena on Feb. 10, Purdue 79-59 on Wednesday and Northwestern 62-41 on Sunday.

Iowa has the easiest road down the stretch, facing only one ranked opponent the rest of the season when it travels to Indiana on March 2. The Hawkeyes also have a road game at Nebraska on Thursday and home games remaining with Purdue, Illinois and Nebraska.

The Gophers play back-to-back contests against ranked opponents, going to No. 13 Ohio State on Wednesday and then facing No. 1 Indiana on Feb. 26. Their final home game is March 2 against Penn State, and then they finish the season at Nebraska and at Purdue.

Illinois still has two road games against top Big Ten opponents, at No. 4 Michigan on Feb. 24 and at No. 13 Ohio State to end the season March 10. The Illini also face Penn State and Nebraska at home and travel to Iowa.

The one silver lining for the Gophers' chances of finishing in the top half of the conference is that Iowa and Illinois still have to face each other, while the Gophers have already split the season series with both teams.

Jottings

• Look for the Big Ten to go to nine conference football games and also realign the divisions. Minnesota could be in an all-western division. Future schedules that have been worked on won't mean a thing once this program is put together.

• Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and defensive coordinator Alan Williams coached outstanding Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney while on that staff. Now that Indianapolis has released Freeney, you wonder if the Vikings might have some interest in this great player.

• The Gophers' new Siebert Field doesn't have lights, so night baseball games can't be played. Some $400,000 has to be raised to make that happen.

• General Manager Terry Ryan said he wasn't surprised pitcher Joe Saunders signed a one-year contract with Seattle rather than the Twins, because Saunders played on the West Coast for his first six years with the Los Angeles Angels. ... Ryan believes shortstop Brian Dozier improved his fielding while working at the University of Minnesota with Paul Molitor before spring training opened.

• The Gophers athletic department still has another post to fill after Beth Goetz, who was a senior associate athletic director at Butler, was hired to fill the job held by Regina Sullivan, who left the department shortly after Norwood Teague took over as the Gophers athletic director. Applicants are being interviewed for an associate director of public relations and marketing.

• Jerry Kill is in demand to lecture at football clinics. The Gophers football coach will speak at camps in St. Louis on Feb. 22-23 and in Philadelphia on March 1-2 in addition to the Minnesota Football Coaches Association clinic here on April 4-6.

• The new football coach at St. Olaf is former Oles assistant Craig Stern.

• Former Gophers forward Phil Kessel got off to a slow start to the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, failing to score in his first 10 games. There also have been some trade rumors regarding Kessel, who is in his fourth season in Toronto after three with Boston and is due to make $5.4 million next season, but his agent, Wade Arnott, told Sportsnet Fan590 radio in Toronto that Kessel, 25, wants to play for the Maple Leafs the rest of his career. The Maple Leafs can't open contract talks with Kessel until July 1, according to the Toronto Star.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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