Season's ups and downs have U basketball ready for smooth sailing

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2013 - 8:10 AM
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Maverick Ahanmisi waved his arms for more crowd noise after scoring against Indiana

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Seconds after the Gophers' potentially season-changing win over No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday, coach Tubby Smith stepped away from the hordes of fans pouring onto the court and looked down the microphone of ESPN sideline reporter Samantha Ponder as if it were a snake waiting to bite him.

The victory represented the best the Gophers have played all season. But Smith -- seemingly as baffled as anyone about Minnesota's up-and-down play -- looked more weary than anything as he shook the hand of Hoosiers coach Tom Crean and made his way through his postgame interviews.

So with the Gophers (19-9, 7-8 in the Big Ten) heading into what looks on paper to be a much easier game against Penn State (9-18, 1-14) on Saturday, Smith has taken it as his job to try to smooth the wave rather than ride it.

Waves, he's found, are dangerous for this bunch.

"I've been concerned about the ebb and flow of this group ever since the season started," Smith said after Tuesday's win, in response to a question about momentum. A day later, he echoed the same message.

"As I've said before -- never get too high, never get too low," Smith said. "When you get too high, you want to create that false sense of accomplishment, and when you get too low, you try to find ways to build yourself back up, and that can give you a false sense as well. So you can't lie to yourself about what's going on."

Said senior Rodney Williams: "When we get big wins, we get really excited, we get high on ourselves, and sometimes we kind of stay in the past. We stay with that last game."

Clearly, the Gophers' woes are not solved by a single big win. Before that came eight losses in 11 games, in a season that has fallen short of early expectations. After the win over the Badgers on Feb. 14, a video surfaced of the Gophers' postgame dancing in the locker room -- led by a solo breakdown by Smith himself. But consecutive losses by a total of 47 points at Iowa and Ohio State followed, bookended by some despondent locker rooms, players said.

"When you start out the game so well and you lose the lead all the time, it's kind of hard to stay positive," Williams said. "We'd come into the locker room at halftime, and guys would just be down on themselves."

With frustrated fans taking to Twitter to air their chagrin, many of the players have made the decision to avoid the social media giant for a while, although a few of them did share quick thoughts after the Indiana game.

Smith brought in a sports psychologist to talk with his players before that game, took them to church together on Sunday and the team got together privately to speak frankly and share thoughts on how to turn things around.

After Tuesday, there was no dancing -- with Williams jokingly calling it bad luck. But there was plenty of joy among the players, and rightfully so. Such a win can function as a springboard heading into the Big Ten tournament, especially with the Gophers' final three games -- against Penn State and at Nebraska and Purdue -- looking winnable. They won't take any of those games lightly, however, particularly after Penn State upset Michigan earlier this week.

In the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament -- with the Gophers' berth in the latter on far more solid ground after beating Indiana -- anything can happen.

The problem with a wave is that it eventually crashes. The Gophers and Smith are hoping, instead, that they're at the start of a staircase.

"You want to put it behind you because we've got to move on from there, but at the same time it is something we want to propel forward on," Austin Hollins said. "We take that [Indiana] win and ... all the good things in there, and we want to take that into future games."

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