When the Gophers take the court Friday, they will have scouted UCLA thoroughly. They will have watched film, prepared in practices and looked at boxscores in anticipation of their opening matchup in the NCAA tournament — their last chance to end the season on a high note.
But for the real foe, the Gophers will be looking elsewhere, trying to pin down the opponent that weasels through their locker room, shows up at their practices and whispers words of panic in the middle of games. After a season of inconsistency, the Gophers know the real threat is themselves.
“You can’t be intimidated,” senior forward Rodney Williams said. “You go out there intimidated, you’re probably going to lose most of the time. So we just have to go out there and play our game and just worry about us. In my opinion, we’re the only ones that can beat us.”
Maintaining a consistent intensity was an issue for Minnesota for most of the Big Ten season. It started when Minnesota started sluggishly at Indiana, only to charge back to nearly overcome a 23-point gap in the second half. It showed as recently as last week in a two-point loss to Illinois in the Big Ten tourney, when Minnesota shot 55.6 percent in the second half after making just 27.3 percent of its shots in the first.
That inconsistency, paired with the Gophers’ proclivity for turnovers, has led many to wonder if a lack of mental toughness is Minnesota’s greatest concern.
“It’s fair to say,” said senior Trevor Mbakwe. “We’re one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to turning the ball over and that’s hurt us throughout the season. … You’re not going to win most nights playing the way we are, and we just have to get back to being focused and not making silly decisions and mistakes.”
Coach Tubby Smith defended his decision to sit Mbakwe with two fouls for the majority of the first half Thursday for the second consecutive game, even as the Gophers were getting overwhelmed on the scoreboard.
Afterward, Smith second-guessed his decision, saying the team might have been better off had he played Mbakwe in that situation. Tuesday, Smith acknowledged that it’s not that simple.
“Two fouls — there’s nothing I can do about that, and Trevor can’t play with three,” Smith said. “He’s proven that. Once he gets his first or second foul, he’s winding down defensively.”
• Minnesota freshman Wally Ellenson will travel with the team to Austin. Ellenson is still sick with the flu, but he is no longer contagious. Everyone else on the team is healthy, Smith said, and Williams said his shoulder is no longer bothering him.
• Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins was asked before Monday’s game against the Timberwolves if he had filled out his NCAA tournament bracket and picked the winner for the matchup between the Gophers and UCLA.
“I have not, but I’m pretty sure who the winner is going to be,” said Hollins, the father of Austin Hollins. “It’s going to be Minnesota.”
Staff writer Jerry Zgoda contributed to this report.