Gophers’ tourney bid preceded by highs and lows

Published 7:53 am Wednesday, March 20, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Golden Gophers were ranked as high eighth in the country, and then they weren’t ranked at all. They beat No. 1 Indiana, and then they lost to Nebraska.

They backed into the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed, and will face a banged-up UCLA team on Friday.

It’s been a crazy season for the Gophers, filled with significant achievements and embarrassing defeats. The players hope that the mentally exhausting run will better prepare them for the wild swings in momentum at the tournament.

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“We know we’ve played one of the toughest schedules, we’ve played the best teams, the Dukes and Indianas of the world,” senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said Tuesday. “We know we can compete with them. We have to get back to playing that way and actually believing.”

That belief has been tested several times this season. After a 15-1 start that included victories over Memphis, Michigan State and at Illinois propelled the Gophers to No. 8, they lost four straight games to tumble out of the Top 25 altogether.

They rebounded to beat the Hoosiers and pound Penn State at Williams Arena, only to lose their final three games — at Nebraska, at Purdue and to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament — and stumble into the South regional in Austin, Texas. Yet the Gophers are one of the trendy picks for an upset in their opening round game against the Bruins (25-9).

The inconsistency from a team that has had its core together for at least two years now has led to some speculation that coach Tubby Smith’s job is on the line.

Blunt as ever, Smith is no stranger to the hot seat. He coached in the pressure cooker at Kentucky before leaving for Minnesota, and he’s secure enough in his approach and his system to not let outside criticism affect him.

“That’s not up to me. We just do our job and do the best we can and go from there. … I don’t apologize or I don’t defend anything,” Smith said earlier this week. “We do the best we can. We do a good job. That’s why we’re NCAA bound.”

What can be more difficult is getting a bunch of kids in their late teens and early 20s to adopt the same thick skin. Most of them haven’t experienced the same type of scrutiny that Smith is used to getting, and it can be a challenge for them to tune out the negative attention from the media, and comments made by fans on Twitter and Facebook.

“Coach always tells us to stay off that and keep away from reading all that stuff,” senior forward Rodney Williams said. “It’s kind of tough sometimes, but me personally, I try to stay away from all that because I’ve seen some of the negative stuff that people have to say. It doesn’t do anything but make you frustrated with things, so I just try to stay away from it as much as possible.”

Smith has brought a sports psychologist in to meet with the team periodically throughout the season, hoping to keep them focused on the task at hand.

“There’s a lot of baiters out there that put you in positions that make you compromise a lot of things and make you change your personality,” Smith said after his team beat Indiana on Feb. 26. “For young people, they’re affected more than old folks like myself.”

For the most part, these Gophers have looked inward as they weather the extremes. If it has added a chip on some of the players’ shoulders, that may not be the worst thing heading into the weekend.

“I’m not too worried about what the outside people think,” guard Andre Hollins said. “I’m worried about what the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff think. We’re playing for each other. I could care less what anybody else says about us. We’re going to come out here and we’re going to play our hearts out.”

They’re going to have to. There’s no more time left for slip-ups, let-downs or disappointments. The attention, scrutiny and stakes only get higher from here on out. It shouldn’t come as a shock to the Gophers. They’ve seen it and heard it all season long.

“A lot of people say we’re one of the most disappointing teams, especially after the hot start that we got off to and the let-downs we had at the end of the season,” Mbakwe said. “We can’t dwell on it too much. We have to stay in the family, in house, keep believing in one another and listen what goes on the outside.”