Four thoughts as we teeter toward that two month-gap between the end of the NFL season and the start of the MLB regular season:

The narrative with the Gophers men’s basketball team and the Timberwolves in recent weeks has changed from “hopeless” to “getting closer” as blowout losses have given way to much more competitive losses.

The Gophers are 0-10 in Big Ten play; the first five losses were by an average of 16.4 points, while the past five have been by an average of 5.4 points. The Wolves, too, have been playing a more entertaining style even while losing four of their past five games — most of which were close games for long stretches.

The question now becomes: Does this signify genuine improvement for both teams or merely a different way to lose? After all, basketball has become much like football — a sport with outcomes derived so often by a handful of critical plays at the ends of games. Bad teams can look good for much of a game, only to be overwhelmed when it matters most.

I dare say recent games are reason for tempered optimism when it comes to both teams. But until “getting closer” turns into close wins instead of close losses, let’s keep it all in perspective.

KEY STRETCH FOR WILD

If you break down just about any 82-game NHL schedule, you can find pockets of games that look more daunting or important than others.

The Wild’s games leading up to this year’s All-Star break have created one of those blocks of games right at the outset of the post-break schedule.

Out of the chute starting Tuesday, the Wild has three road games against playoff contenders: the Islanders, Rangers and Blues. Minnesota will have 30 games left after those are done — including a closing stretch that includes seven of the final 11 games at Xcel Energy Center.

Still, the importance of these three games is palpable — for points, for confidence and perhaps even for the future direction of the organization.

 

DOUBLE WHAMMY

Losses to Bemidji State and Minnesota State Mankato at this weekend’s North Star College Cup dropped the Gophers men’s hockey team to an almost unfathomable 1-12 in its past 13 games against in-state programs.

As much as that’s a dent in the pride of the Gophers and their fan base, the more critical immediate impact is on the race for an NCAA tournament berth. A strong stretch of play coming into the tournament had the Gophers climbing in the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the teams selected for the tournament.

But now? The Gophers are outside the top 16 and might need to win the Big Ten tournament to advance to the NCAA tourney.

 

RIDICULOUS, INDEED

Former Rams coach Mike Martz was sticking up for a couple former players when he said it’s “ridiculous” that wide receiver Terrell Owens is a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist in his first year of eligibility while fellow receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt missed the cut.

Sorry, Coach. Thinking those two belong ahead of Owens is the only thing ridiculous about the whole situation.