The Timberwolves won their fifth game in a row Saturday, beating the Milwaukee Bucks 106-104. They would have lost all five last year or earlier this season, according to team star Al Jefferson.
The Wolves, who had separate losing streaks of eight and 13 consecutive games earlier this season, trailed by 13 points at one point before coming back to stop the Bucks.
"Yeah, it was one of those games that we just had to grind it out," Jefferson said. "Even earlier this year, we would have given up and put our heads down, but we kept fighting. I fouled out, and my teammates stepped up and we got the win.
"It's just being dedicated. We knew we had to play defense, and we knew we lost a lot of games that we should have won. I think guys just made up their minds to be dedicated and just go out and play hard and leave it all on the floor and play together, not give up. I think that's what turned it around."
Jefferson credits part of the turnaround to the improved shooting of guard Randy Foye and the way guard Sebastian Telfair has stepped up when he is paired with Foye.
"[Foye's] defense has been good, and he's been playing like an All-Star right now. His last 10 games, I think he's been averaging like 25 points a game," Jefferson said. "When he's playing the way he's playing, he really takes a lot of pressure off of everybody."
About Telfair, Jefferson said: "He is the best- conditioned player I have ever been around."
Jefferson had nothing but good words to say about coach Kevin McHale.
"I think he is an old-school coach," Jefferson said. "If something isn't broke, don't fix it, is his theory. That is the way he coaches. So if a play keeps working, that is what we are going to keep on doing. If they stop it, we go to the second option. That's the way he coaches. He lets us go out and play free. He's coached defense, and I think he's a great coach.
"I know me playing center on this team, I'm the captain on defense. When I'm playing great defense, the team plays great defense. So that's something that I had to take upon myself to get better. I have a long ways to go, but just know my teammates know I'm working at it. I'm trying to get better at it, and it's something that I want to get better at, and it's going to happen."
The Wolves haven't recently beaten any good teams. They will get a chance to see what they can do when the Miami Heat comes to town Tuesday.Merit ranking
At one time, the Gophers' incoming basketball recruits were ranked as high as 11th by some of the scouting services. A big reason for that ranking was that coach Tubby Smith brought in two of the top junior college players in the country in guard Devron Bostick, who won almost every junior college honor possible, and forward Paul Carter, who also had a high rating. But once the season started, some of the websites dropped the Gophers in their rankings when neither of the junior college players did much.
But on Sunday, in a 79-59 victory over much-improved Penn State, Bostick scored 19 points in 16 minutes of action and Carter scored 14 points in 20 minutes. They were the Gophers' two top scorers as No. 22 Minnesota improved to 15-1, 3-1 in the Big Ten.
Smith has been predicting big things for the two players once they learned his system. And in Carter's case, his progress was slowed because of a sprained ankle.
"I've had junior college players, transfers over the years, and they all take a while to understand the system," Smith said. "It's like going into a different class: The fundamentals are the same, but the terminology, the system, the offense and defense are different.
"So it usually takes them about half a year. In Paul Carter's situation, he really hasn't played a full season in about three years. He's just getting back healthy again. Last year he had a hernia surgery and missed a bunch of games, so he's really just starting to blossom. Devron Bostick, again he was their go-to-guy [in junior college], and that's an adjustment right away when you have to come off the bench.
"So to accept that takes time, as well as learning a whole new system. [Carter] had a good college coach, Brian Ostermann ... and [Bostick's junior college coach] Jay Harrington is a very good coach. That's why we recruited them, because we knew they were capable of doing what they're doing now. Now they understand how hard they have to play at this level and the intensity level that we expect. That's why they're playing well."
Well, the Big Ten is not as strong this year as it has been in past years, except for Michigan State. If Bostick and Carter can perform every game like they did Sunday, you can bet the Gophers will be in the NCAA tournament.Jottings
Gophers football coach Tim Brewster said the team will add six eligible players this month. One is linebacker Sam Maresh, who couldn't play because of heart problem corrected by surgery. Two more are transfers -- offensive lineman Matt Carufel, who transferred from Notre Dame, and cornerback Kim Royston -- who were in school and practiced with the team but weren't eligible to play because of the transfer rule. Quarterback MarQueis Gray and linebacker Spencer Reeves previously didn't qualify academically and are now eligible. Junior college offensive lineman Jeff Willis also will be eligible for spring practice.
The big mystery about Mike Dunbar's resignation as offensive coordinator, after having to share duties with new offensive line coach/running game coordinator Tim Davis, is why the Gophers athletic department is obligated to pay Dunbar's 2009 pay of $270,000 if he doesn't get a job at the football coaches meeting this week. But why would Dunbar accept a job that would pay him considerably less than $270,000 if the school is obligated to assign him to a different job at his current salary? No doubt Brewster and Dunbar had a falling-out.
You wonder if the Vikings will shift Ryan Cook from right tackle to his college position of center if free-agent center Matt Birk doesn't return to the team.
Most of the publicity about Vikings free agents who might not come back centers around Birk, safety Darren Sharper and tight end Jim Kleinsasser. But the free agent special teams coach Paul Ferarro is most concerned about returning is Heath Farwell, the MVP of the special teams last year (2008) who had knee surgery and missed the season. Farwell is staying around Winter Park all offseason to rehab his knee and is convinced he will be 100 percent by the start of minicamps.