At one point in the second half of tonight’s 83-75 Gophers loss to No. 5 Michigan, I had the following thought:

It may be time to make some concessions about this Minnesota team.

The problem with saying that is this: they keep changing up what they’re giving you. They hand you two different sets of data (in the last two games, anyway)– one from a team that looks bound for a run in the NCAA tournament; another from a team that looks lost, lethargic, uninspired and unworthy of winning the last two games.

Here it is:

When the Gophers play with the defensive intensity that has personified them this season, they can play with any team. When they don’t, they can’t.

Fans that will blame tonight on poor officiating and bad calls are seeing this team through a false lens – one that doesn’t take into account the ways they’ve shot themselves in the foot over the last two contests, the poor stretches of play, made worse by the fact that they’ve shown good and well they can play much better. It’s hard to blame bad calls when a team turns the ball over 15 times, 10 in the first half. It’s hard to blame calls when a team misses seven of its final 16 free throws. It’s hard to blame calls when a defensive-minded team misses switches, doesn’t communicate and allows an offense to shoot 54.9 percent. It’s hard to blame calls unless a team is darned-near perfect.

And in the last two games, the Gophers have been far from it.

They’ve played hard in stretches. They’ve played with impressive intensity. Other times, they disappear.

I knew that tonight’s postgame would be sullen, and the locker room was every bit of that. But the thing that surprised me the most was coach Tubby Smith’s comment afterward about the team’s lackluster practice a day earlier. He seemed not just concerned, but confused, because after all – he has lauded this team as hard-working and possessing of the tangibles from the start of the season.

“I was disappointed in our practice yesterday, to be honest with you in the defensive effort, especially in our starting group, and it showed today -- It raised its ugly head,” Smith said. “There’s no reason to panic, but I’m just really disappointed in two games, with the way we’ve played in the first half. And trying to make a comeback, that’s just a – well, I really don’t know what to call it. It’s just disappointing.”

Is it possible that the Gophers focused a bit too much on their early success? It doesn’t seem like this team, but then again, neither does these long, lethargic stretches where it’s only natural to question the apparent effort.

Too much shouldn’t be made of these two losses – after all, Michigan and Indiana are two of the best teams in the country. But the focus, instead, should fall within, on changing a sprouting trend that could prove dangerous if it continues.

Other notes from tonight’s game:

  • Austin Hollins was the true bright spot for the Gophers tonight. The guard was the impetus early, and finished with 21 points, six rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. Afterward, Smith was quick to point out once again, that Hollins is one to never go light on a practice. “We’ve got one guy that comes every day, every day, he’s going to give it everything he has and that’s Austin Hollins,” Smith said. “It’s not even close when it comes to the hardest worker in our program. Not that the other guys don’t work hard, but they don’t come with that type of intensity and it showed today, and that’s what was disappointing.”
  • Andre Hollins left 6:25 into the game with two fouls and didn’t come back until after halftime, even though as he said, he was angling to return. “Yeah, I wanted to go back in really bad because I was playing really good defense on them – but that’s the luck of the draw sometimes,” he said.
  • In his stead, however, Julian Welch did some good things for the Gophers, hitting three jump shots for a season-high eight points to help keep the Gophers in the game. Before tonight, Welch hadn’t scored a point since the Northwestern game and hadn’t had more than four since the win over Lafayette.
  • A season later, the Gophers didn’t seem to have any answers for Trey Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr. Burke was phenomenal and simply toyed with the Gophers, it seemed at times. Hardaway’s performance was muted some after the first half, but by then he had already done damage to the tune of 17 points.
  • A couple of reporters asked Rodney Williams at practice on Wednesday whether he had thought about a replacement for his signature 360-dunk for the Michigan game. But instead, the only person doing a 360 was Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III, in the second half, to the boos of the sold-out crowd.

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