Barfknecht: Gophers not so golden now

Minnesota guard Andre Hollins has a 41-point game this season, and the Gophers are strong in most areas. But turnovers are a concern. Minnesota is last in the Big Ten and 233rd nationally, committing 14.4 a game.

From earning notice as a possible Final Four sleeper to now suffering four straight Big Ten losses.

That's the roller-coaster trajectory Minnesota's season has taken entering Tuesday night's home game against Nebraska.

On Jan. 9, the Gophers were 15-1 and ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll. The only loss was to then-No. 1 Duke.

Then came an 88-81 loss at No. 5 Indiana, a setback hardly worth hanging your head about. Same with an 83-75 loss to Michigan, which this week is No. 1. But the next two losses — 55-48 to Northwestern and 45-44 to Wisconsin — are causing big worries.

“No one wants to play bad. No one is trying to lose,” UM coach Tubby Smith said. “But it becomes a state of mind.”

The freak-out over four straight losses, even against good competition, stems from what has happened the past two seasons at Minnesota.

Two years ago, the Gophers started 11-1 but ended the season with 10 losses in their final 11 games to miss postseason play.

Last year, they started 12-1 but had losing streaks of four and six games to fall out of NCAA consideration. (They did reach the NIT title game, losing to Stanford to finish 23-15.)

Asked if he sees his team going that way again, Smith said: “I think we're a pretty mature group. In the past, we were relatively young. We only had two seniors last year. We have five this year.”

This is hardly Smith's first rodeo. He won a national championship at Kentucky, and in 21 years as a head coach at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota has never had a losing season.

But Smith is struggling to find the right buttons to push with this team.

He has kicked the players in the rump, publicly calling them “scared” and “losers” after a loss. He has patted them on the back, praising their talent.

So far, neither has done much good.

Talent isn't the issue. The Gophers have five players who have scored 19 points or more in a single game this season, including 41 from guard Andre Hollins and 29 from forward Joe Coleman. They also are fifth nationally in rebounding margin and eighth in blocked shots.

But turnovers are a concern. Minnesota is last in the Big Ten and 233rd nationally, committing 14.4 a game.

“You can't run or execute or set your defense when you turn the ball over the way we have,” Smith said. “The turnovers kill you. It limits your possession.

“And a lot of it has to do with some mental mistakes that we are making in crucial situations.”

Smith is 118-73 (.618) overall in his sixth season at Minnesota. But fans are grumbling about his Big Ten record of 41-56 (.423). Columnists in the Twin Cities have sharpened their pencils and criticism the past two weeks.

Credit Smith for not whining about schedule difficulty. Losing at Indiana, to Michigan and at Wisconsin is hardly a crime.

Four of the next five games are at home (Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin), so Minnesota, which hung onto Top 25 status this week at No. 23, could flip things quickly.

But only if the Gophers spend more time making plays — and less time on Twitter complaining about their coach “throwing them way under the bus.”

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