There are plenty of pertinent examples Gophers coach Tubby Smith can point out to give his limping squad some hope in the Big Ten tournament that starts Thursday and the NCAA tournament that starts the following week.

The bulk of this Minnesota team – sans just Trevor Mbakwe and Wally Ellenson – was also part of the team that plowed through the NIT tournament last season after a disappointing regular-season slate. They won two of three in last year’s Old Spice Classic in Orlando, and notched wins in the Bahamas against then-No. 19 Memphis and Stanford. Three of the starting five – Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins – were part of the team that beat then-No. 8 North Carolina in Puerto Rico.

They’ve performed pretty well in neutral court situations overall, and have done so partly because of the same reason that the Gophers often struggle, Smith said on Monday’s teleconference: the mental aspect.

“I think a lot of it has to do with how you just play,” Smith said. “There’s not a lot of preparation time, you just go in and play. There’s not a whole lot of thinking, or a whole lot of game preparation, and that may be better suited for us, to be honest with you.”

Smith noted that the psyche of this players is still somewhat delicate after two consecutive “bad” losses to end the regular season.

After enduring season-ending injuries to Mbakwe last year and Al Nolen the year before that, Smith is entering tournament time with one of his physically healthiest teams. But the scrapes, bruises and tweaks are not what the coach is concerned about with this particular version.

“We’re OK physically,” he said. “Mentally is where we’re hurting, where we’ve got to do a lot of work, a lot of healing.”

If the team can take steps in that regard, they could make a run, Smith said.

“I know we’re capable of stepping up and raising our level of play,” he said. “We have talent on our tam and we need to have those guys step up and really have that presence. … With Rodney and Trevor, two seniors that have a lot to play for. I would expect them to step up and have a great tournament.”

Other notes from today’s media teleconference:

  • Smith said he thinks the Gophers are going to have to “fight” for their spot in the NCAA tournament in the league tournament this week, starting Thursday against Illinois, even though they have notched some impressive wins for the resume. “I think we’ve got to be fighting for it all the time,” he said. “The only guaranteed spot is the Big Ten tournamnt champion. So that’s what we’re shooting for now that we didn’t win the regular season and now that we’re 8-10 in the league play, under .500, there’s a lot of things that we’re suspect. But our full body of work is probably as good as anybody else’s around, so we’re at least in the top 20 or 30 I would think as far as RPI and things like that and the good wins, the quality of wins that we’ve had. But again, they look at what you’ve done lately, too, and so that’s where we’ve got to step up in this tournament.”
  • Smith said Andre Ingram is fine after tweaking his ankle in Saturday’s game at Purude. Ingram will practice today, he said.
  • Julian Welch didn’t play on Saturday because he was still under the weather, Smith said. “He was very weak,” Smith said. “I didn’t think he would be very effective to be honest with you. He sat out practice the day before. He was coughing and I didn’t think it was appropriate to put him in that type of situation.”
  • Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said this morning that he expects the Big Ten tournament to be “one of the greatest conference tournaments of all time,” based on how exciting and close the season has been up until this point. I have to concur, and I can’t wait.