Timberwolves and Gophers display a lack of mental toughness

Published 2:28 am Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Column: Notes from Nashville, by Andrew Dyrdal

Blistering cold temperatures and seemingly endless amounts of snow have again this winter tested the toughness of Minnesotans.

While many of us — myself not included — have remained sane during the season’s short, frigid days, the efforts of our favorite sports teams over the last week have tested our composure more than any late February blizzard could.

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Our favorite Minnesota sports teams playing around home and our favorite Minnesota athletes competing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi have not shown the resolve most of their fans have. Despite having plenty of talent, our heroes on the court and ice have seen their mental toughness melt away. This winter has been another disappointing end to months and years of waiting with hope and optimism.

While the NHL’s top players were preparing for and competing in the Olympics, the Timberwolves and Gophers men’s basketball team’s tickets were the hottest in town with the Wild shut down for three weeks.

The Gophers started the season with low expectations but raised hope when they ended their non-conference schedule with an 11-2 record and won four of their first seven Big Ten games, including wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Gophers faltered down the stretch but sat just a game below .500 on Wednesday with a winnable game up next against last-place Illinois and plenty of big opportunities to boost their NCAA Tournament resume in their final five games.

Minnesota got off to a 14-3 lead over the Illini to open the game but was outscored 38-22 in the second half.

The Gophers’ worst loss and mental breakdown of the season was rivaled on Saturday at Ohio State when the Buckeyes overcame a 30-18 deficit to Minnesota and used a 17-0 run to grab the lead and won handily after outscoring the U 46-18 in the second half. The Gophers had two great opportunities to get close to solidifying a tournament bid but have likely lost all hope after two enormous meltdowns.

Unlike the Gophers, the Timberwolves entered the season with plenty of optimism and were picked by ESPN to be a Top 5 team in the NBA’s Western Conference. The Wolves haven’t lived up to expectations at all this season, despite having their most talented roster in nearly a decade and one of the best players in the league. They’ve flirted with the eighth playoff spot all season.

The Timberwolves drew closer to that spot by winning three straight games — tying their season-high winning streak — before heading into an important matchup at Portland on Sunday. Minnesota led the Blazers by eight at halftime, but much like the Gophers, broke down mentally in the second half and were outscored 56-37 to end the game.

The Timberwolves and Gophers meltdowns wouldn’t have been as tough to stomach had some of the state’s top hockey players not performed similarly during the same time. The U.S. men’s hockey team had seven players who were born in Minnesota, and after losing a hard-played game to Canada in the semifinals, they lacked the mental toughness to rebound against Finland in the third-place game, losing 5-0.

The women’s hockey team similarly had plenty of Minnesotans, but lost its mental focus with a 2-0 lead over Canada in the finals. Canada scored twice in the final 150 seconds and again in overtime to stun the U.S.

Let’s hope the snow melts and our favorite teams and athletes mental toughness rises heading into the final weeks of their schedules.

Andrew Dyrdal’s column appears in the Tribune each Tuesday.