Rodney Williams was absent from the end of Gophers practice and media access Monday because he had a class.

There have been a few in-game absences, too.

Heading into Tuesday's game against Nebraska, Williams represents leadership for a squad in desperate need of breaking out of a four-game slump, but he also is the starter struggling most. The senior forward's scoring average has dropped four points per game between Big Ten games (9 ppg) and nonconference games (13 ppg).

The deficit has only gotten more dramatic in the past two games, in which Williams totaled nine points and seven rebounds while going 3-for-17 from the field during losses at Northwestern and Wisconsin

And the longer Williams struggles for the Gophers -- who dropped 11 spots to No. 23 in the new AP poll Monday -- the more the frustration shows on his face.

"I'm just concerned," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "Something is getting him off of his game."

That is evident and meaningful, considering Williams established himself as the Gophers' most consistent force in the nonconference schedule, averaging 13 points and just over six rebounds, while scoring in double digits in 11 of 13 games.

He scored 16 points and had seven rebounds in an 89-71 loss to then-No. 5 Duke on Nov. 22, so simply blaming the decrease on tougher league competition seems hasty and incomplete. After all, Williams had his two worst games of the season last week at Northwestern and at Wisconsin, two unranked teams.

"I think he's just going through a slump," senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said. "I don't think it's the competition because he's played in big games, he's played in a ton of big games, he made the run in the NIT [last year]. He's a great player, and this is just a tough period for him. ... We just need to get a chance for him to get an easy basket, a couple dunks and get his confidence back up."

Williams has said himself many times that confidence always has had a big effect on his game, his success often dependent on whether he is able to overcome the mental pressure that goes along with adversity.

When he's rolling, he's rolling. When he's not, everything seems harder.

"It kind of builds up a little bit," Williams said of the team's four-game skid after Saturday's 45-44 loss to the Badgers. "You can't worry about those losses. We've got to put them behind us [and] just keep pushing, keep moving forward."

Smith's main reason for playing Williams for long stretches at small forward Saturday -- the most he has played at the position all season -- was because he was seeking a lineup with more inside size and rebounding potential. But he also was hoping a change in status quo would spark his star, who tends to get "worn out" this time of year, Smith said. Instead, Williams went 0-for-6 from the floor, scoring only two points on free throws, and missing one big foul shot that would have tied the score with 1.7 seconds remaining.

With the 6-7 Williams normally playing power forward, he is undersized in just about every game. Sometimes that can be a benefit, with his athleticism and quickness causing a matchup problem. At other times -- more of which have come lately -- the height and bulk deficit merely gets him pushed around.

"We play an undersized lineup," Mbakwe said "I'm playing [center] at my height [listed at 6-8] and playing against taller players -- 6-10, 7-footers -- on a nightly basis, but that's why we've got to get in the weight room and get strong. ... Sometimes it's a disadvantage, but we just have to work through it because that's the way we want to play."

Williams is not playing how he wants or the way the team needs. He's playing tight, frustrated and lackadaisical at times.

All evidence points to it simply being a matter of time and confidence for the forward, but at this juncture, the Gophers don't have long to wait.

"I think he just needs to settle down and have more fun out there," junior guard Austin Hollins said. "I think sometimes he just goes out there, he's playing so hard and he's so focused into the game that sometimes he's just not having as much fun as he should."