The Gophers basketball team plays top-ranked Indiana for the second time this season Tuesday at the Barn. Their first meeting in mid-January feels like a distant memory now, as if it happened in a different season.

Remember that game? The Gophers nearly erased a 23-point deficit on the road with a furious second-half rally that, even in a loss, made fans and media believe anything was possible for them. That team was tough and determined. Nobody questioned whether the Gophers would make the NCAA tournament; the conversation only focused on how far they could advance.

Except we haven't seen that team since, not for any sustained stretches. Instead of providing a slingshot effect, that loss marked the beginning of an exasperating collapse that has resulted in eight losses in their past 11 games, including back-to-back defeats of 20-plus points last week.

But hey, their RPI is still solid, so we should all just relax, right?

This latest February swoon has sparked an interesting point-counterpoint exercise. On one hand, each loss elicits more anger and anxiety from Gophers faithful. But then a segment of fans and national bracketologists remind everyone that the Gophers maintain a comfortable spot in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings -- No. 17 on Monday. The NCAA tournament selection committee purportedly doesn't rely on RPI as a singular criterion, but those rankings provide a snapshot of a team's résumé.

Our eyeballs tell us something different, though. We see what a computer can't. We see body language and a group of players and coaches who appear lost and out of answers. We see their mounting frustration. The RPI doesn't measure competitive spirit, either.

By all accounts, the Gophers still look like a safe bet to make the NCAA tournament. That was almost guaranteed after their 15-1 start. But this season was never about just squeaking into the tournament, or needing to monitor the RPI on a daily basis like it's the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the midst of a market crash. Weren't expectations higher than that?

This is Tubby Smith's most talented team, one that was supposed to make its mark in March. This season was supposed to serve as a referendum on Smith's program because we were promised a clearer picture without all the convenient excuses of recent years.

Sure, the Gophers have their flaws -- no true point guard, inconsistent outside shooting, suspect bench -- but they didn't ascend into the top 10 nationally by sheer luck. Granted, the level of competition jumped several notches once they reached Big Ten play, but that doesn't completely explain the degree to which they have crumbled.

They were a good team at one point. That's what makes this February meltdown so maddening. It's not like two seasons ago when Al Nolen got hurt and Blake Hoffarber was thrust into point guard duty. The Gophers also can't blame their slide on academic issues or someone leaving the program.

They simply have lost their collective confidence, and Smith's public haranguing has only made matters worse. His players looked despondent when Iowa went to a 2-3 zone and again when Ohio State turned up its intensity in the second half. It's almost as if they had nothing left to give. It's one thing to lose, but something entirely different to lose like that.

The question now is, can the Gophers regain their confidence and find themselves again? Can they become more than a one-and-done team in the tournament?

Nothing at present suggests that is a likely scenario, but it's also hard to completely forget about how the Gophers played in December and early January -- the way they responded to a gut punch by Michigan State on New Year's Eve and the grit they showed in the second half against Indiana. Who knows, maybe that team is gone for good.

Smith invited a sports psychologist to talk to his team over the weekend, which is something he's done in previous seasons. On the surface, it seems like an act of desperation, but it can't hurt at this point. The Gophers should consider any reasonable idea that might get them back on track, including lineup tweaks and sports shrinks.

The best remedy, of course, would be a strong effort against Indiana. That certainly would be more reassuring than clinging to their RPI ranking or anything else.

Chip Scoggins •