New season, new energy for tourney-ready Gophers

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2013 - 8:28 AM

The NCAAs offer a final chance to salvage their frustrating season.

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The Gophers bench celebrated as they maintained their lead in the last seconds of the game against then-No. 1 Indiana at Williams Arena.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune file

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– In the last few Gophers men’s basketball practices, there has been a lot of yelling.

That’s a good thing, Trevor Mbakwe said.

Minnesota, for all of its talent and potential, has had a real problem in the past couple of weeks: energy. It’s showed in the players’ demeanor at the start of games. It’s showed in the midst of those contests, when a visibly frustrated Tubby Smith has coached from the bench, head in cupped hand.

And mostly, it’s showed on scoreboards and in boxscores, with the Gophers losing to Nebraska and Purdue to end the regular season and then getting bounced out of the Big Ten tournament in the first round by Illinois after a sluggish first half.

So heading into the NCAA tournament — the Gophers open against UCLA in the South Regional on Friday — Minnesota is desperately searching for a renewed intensity, a renaissance to make the most of this new life.

That starts with practice.

“Coach has been back to his old self, yelling and everything, and I think that’s needed,” said Mbakwe, a sixth-year senior. “It’s a whole new season. He knows what it takes to win games, and we have to pick up our level of intensity and play with more urgency.”

It’s been a long season for the players and their coach. Minnesota came in with high expectations and climbed to No. 8 in the nation in early January, then crashed in the final month and a half, losing 11 of its last 16 games.

That kind of defeating stretch can wear on everyone.

“No question,” Smith said. “It’s not easy, especially with the disappointment of not playing as well or reaching your potential. It just takes a lot of energy out of you, as a coach, as a player, anyone. It’s much easier and you’re much more excited and you’re much more anxious to get to work and do things when you’re winning and when things are going well than when you’re not. But ... we’ve got this second opportunity to play in postseason play. ... I’ve been energized, and hopefully they sense it and they’ll pick up their intensity as well.”

It’s hard to judge whether the sentiment will come to fruition. The Gophers have talked about finding that new energy and intensity more than once. Smith, for his part, has tried numerous strategies to get his players motivated, from coddling them to bringing in a sports psychologist to arranging multiple inspirational speakers.

Perhaps, now, it’s time for tough love.

“He’s been pretty hard on me and Rodney [Williams],” Mbakwe said. “It’s our senior year, and it’s our last go-round. It’s our last go-round as a team and individually. And the way we’ve been playing the past couple of games, we can’t play that way if we expect to win.”

If the Gophers can find that mental strength and focus, it would be possible for 11th-seeded Minnesota to defeat No. 6 UCLA, something many in the national media are predicting. If they can’t, well, they’ve shown they can lose to just about anyone.

Smith sounded more upbeat and positive Tuesday than he has in weeks. Can he and the Gophers take advantage of new life and a much-needed escape from brutal Big Ten competition?

“I like what I’m seeing,” Smith said.

“I’ve seen a renewed spirit, a renewed energy, and that’s kind of gotten me happier, so it makes it a lot more fun.”

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