A year ago, the Gophers men's basketball team finished with a 9-22 record. This season, they already have won 10 games with the conference schedule only one game old.

Among last season's losses last season was a 70-46 defeat at Michigan State. Well, Saturday, this year's Gophers visited East Lansing to begin conference play, and the game was a good indication of how much this Tubby Smith-coached team has improved.

Michigan State, ranked sixth in the country, has all of its starters returning from a team that went to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year. And the Spartans are always tough at home, having won more than 90 percent of their games there the past 10 years.

Still this Gophers team, with pretty much the same personnel as last season with the exception of freshmen Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber along with the now-eligible Travis Busch, was trailing Tom Izzo's Spartans 58-57 with less than four minutes left and had the ball. Had the Gophers taken the lead they might have gone on to win, but they turned it over, Michigan State got two free throws and held on from there.

Yes, the Gophers lost 65-59, but they were in the game almost to the end.

They were able to hold Drew Neitzel, the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, to four points, but unfortunately this is a very talented Michigan State team, with a lot of weapons. Raymar Morgan, the 6-7 sophomore forward, had 31 points and 10 rebounds and was the difference-maker for the Spartans.

Moral victories not the answer

Smith doesn't believe in moral victories.

"We had a number of chances to tie it up, I guess we had about four chances to, when [it was] about a three-point game there with about 1:40 to go," Smith said. "... Once again, we've got to figure out ways to win those games, and those are issues that we're dealing with. We've got to correct those mistakes."

Still, it was a much better effort than the Gophers' previous game, when they were dominated in an 81-64 loss at UNLV on Dec. 30.

"I've got to give our kids credit. They were ready to play," Smith said. "We were focused, unlike the game against UNLV, [when] I didn't think we really were ready. We got the tip for the first time this year and scored first and when you can do that, it gives you a different mindset."

Smith sang the praises of Nolen, the former Minneapolis Henry guard who had an excellent game off the bench Saturday.

"What can I say about Al Nolen, the young man controlled the offense; 27 minutes, seven assists, only one turnover," Smith said. "... But all around, I thought our kids gave the effort."

I've been around that Gophers campus longer than anybody else in the media and I can't ever remember any major team there improve from one season to the next like this 2007-08 men's basketball team has.

If the Gophers do some things during conference play, Smith has to be a candidate for Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Jottings

The fact that the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the AFC playoffs Saturday night won't hurt the chances of former Vikings coach Mike Tice, now Jacksonville's assistant head coach, to get a head coaching job. Tice will be interviewed for the Miami Dolphins vacancy, and if anybody deserves a second chance to be a head coach, it's him. ... It will be interesting to see what suggestions Tice has to Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio about defending Randy Moss when Jacksonville faces the Patriots next week. It will be the first time Tice has faced the former Vikings star receiver.

Fred Hoiberg, the Timberwolves assistant general manager, is on a scouting trip in Europe that will take him to six cities in seven days.

Tubby Smith said that next season, the Gophers will be participating in the CBE Classic, a 16-team November tournament held by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. The Gophers will play host to two games, and if they win they will play two games in the Sprint Center, the new arena in Kansas City, Mo. Michigan State suffered its only loss of this season in the championship game Nov. 20, 68-63 to UCLA.

As usual, the Twins have invited former players Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Paul Molitor, Harmon Killebrew and Terry Steinbach to be special instructors in spring training. ... The 48th annual Twins Caravan starts Jan. 14 and will include visits to more than 50 Upper Midwest cities. ... More than 50 current and former Twins players, including Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan and newcomer Delmon Young, will take part in the annual TwinsFest Jan. 25-27 at the Metrodome. Johan Santana is not scheduled to attend this year.

Les Jackson, who has been with the Dallas Stars organization since its days as the North Stars and was recently named co-interim general manager for the rest of the season, said that at age 37, Mike Modano hasn't lost a thing. And Jackson says that Modano no doubt will continue to play next year. In November, Modano broke the NHL record for career points scored by an American-born player, a mark previously held by St. Paul's Phil Housley. ... Jackson also had some good words to describe Matt Niskanen, the former Virginia High School and Minnesota Duluth athlete who is in his rookie season as a Stars defenseman and scored a goal in their 6-3 loss to the Wild at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday. "Matt will be up here for a long time," Jackson said.

Former Gophers forward Dusty Rychart is still one of the top players on the Brisbane Bullets of the Australian Basketball League, although he was unable to play in Saturday's 132-101 victory over the South Dragons because of suspected tonsillitis. Dragons player-coach Shane Heal, the former Timberwolves guard, scored 26 points. ... Former Gophers forward Rick Rickert is out indefinitely for the New Zealand Breakers of the Australian league because of a bulging disk in his back. He was averaging 17.8 points per game. ... Former Minneapolis North High and Connecticut guard Khalid El-Amin was averaging 15.7 points per game for Turk Telecom of the Turkish Basketball League. ... Former Gophers and Wolves forward Quincy Lewis is playing for Iurbentia Bilbao of the ACB, pro league in Spain. Lewis was averaging seven points in 21 minutes per game. ... Former Gophers guard Rico Tucker shot 2-for-10 from the floor and committed 10 turnovers in 25 minutes off the bench for Pepperdine in its 90-53 loss at No. 2 Memphis on Saturday.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast twice a week at www.startribune.com/sidcast. shartman@startribune.com