Tired of losing, Gophers met to clear the air

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2013 - 6:36 AM

Blunt talk in private might have helped the basketball team regroup and upset No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday.

Behind closed doors, it all came out. After consecutive losses by more than 20 points, the Gophers finally had been pushed to their tipping point.

Everything was aired aloud in a players-only meeting over the weekend. In the overflow came all the thoughts and frustrations, the dissatisfactions, the embarrassment. Above all, the decision was made to make a change and take on a new collective mindset: no excuses.

Though the players wouldn't share the specifics of the get-together leading into Tuesday night's potentially season-changing victory over No. 1 Indiana -- with Austin Hollins saying it was "just between us" -- the motivation was clear.

The Gophers had eight losses in their past 11 games as a once-promising season started to crumble, and Minnesota's highly touted NCAA tournament résumé was getting nudged closer and closer to the bubble. Minnesota was being viewed as a fraud or a flop publicly and was being suffocated by its mounting failures.

"It was just us getting tired of losing," Andre Hollins said. "We have to hold ourselves accountable, because we're the ones out there turning the ball over. It's nobody else's fault if we turn the ball over but our own."

Coach Tubby Smith said on Wednesday that he had encouraged his struggling players -- who he had called upon to find better leadership and get angrier about their current position -- to meet amongst themselves and speak bluntly.

"One of the things they needed to do is take ownership of what's going on," Smith said. "We all have the tendency to want to blame somebody when things are not going well, and I always tell them, 'Fellas, I haven't played a game since 1973 that was meaningful at all. Not that I'm telling you that I have nothing to do with it, but it's pretty important -- you guys are a pretty important part of this basketball team and it is your team.'"

And as the team talked, that anger and discontent rose.

"It was a little bit emotional," Austin Hollins said. "We definitely got everything out there that we needed to and we talked about it as a team. We talked about what we needed to do as a team moving forward and holding each other accountable."

Whereas in the past, a couple of players would do the bulk of the talking in such situations, Andre Hollins said this time, everyone got involved. There was open discussion, tossing around ideas, different perspectives. Players believe the session had something to do with Tuesday's victory that yielded a memorable court-storm at the Barn, and they hope the perspective gained can help the team finish strong.

The Gophers found out after a big victory two weeks ago against Wisconsin -- one that featured a postgame dance celebration -- that momentum swings quickly. They lost their next two games by 20-plus points before redeeming themselves against Indiana.

Now the challenge is carrying the positive feeling into the rest of the season. The Gophers finish the regular season with their easiest stretch, on paper, in conference play. It starts with a home game vs. Penn State on Saturday, followed by road games at bottom-half teams Nebraska and Purdue.

Minnesota's 15th-ranked RPI and No. 1 strength of schedule have been the team's saving grace, but sneaking into the NCAA tournament and heading there with momentum in tow are very different things. Tuesday's win -- and whatever adjustments the Gophers made to attain it -- is certainly a big step in the right direction.

"We were in a slump," Austin Hollins said. "We weren't playing to our potential. And with the team that we have, it's tough to see us not playing to our potential. So we wanted to come out and get back to the way we were playing at the beginning of the season. We didn't have any worries, our confidence was through the roof and we had to get back to that."

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