A week ago this looked like it could be quite a game. The Gopher would have been looking for a big road win to build momentum for an end of the season run that would include 3 wins over probably NCAA tournament teams, two easy home wins, and a winnable game at Northwestern. That first easy home win got away, as the Gophers lost in pathetic fashion to Michigan, leaving themselves only a miraculous path to the NCAA tournament. Beating the Wildcats, and even winning another game is far from a certainty.
A week ago the Wildcats also expected to be fighting for their torunament lives, but with a relatively easy path towards an upper division finish in the Big Ten. Only a game at Wisconsin and Sunday’s game against the Gophers should have been a challenge, and four games against Iowa and Penn State and a game at Indiana should have had NU dancing for the first time ever. And then Iowa happened. Instead of acting like the Iowa game mattered, Northwestern played like the Gophers, and were blown out in Iowa City by 13.
Either the Gophers or Wildcats will have their tournament hopes officially dashed, but it is much more realistic to believe that this game is meaningless. A win is better than a loss of course, but barring a deep run into the Big Ten tournament, the real reward will be a better NIT seed.
Losses happen all the time and are nothing to be a shamed of. Maybe this is just a Minnesota sports self defense mechanism, but I don’t expect wins. For a variety of reasons, some luck, some karma, some economic, and some geographic, Minnesota sports teams will never have the most talent. Losing to more talented teams is expected. Unfortunately, the outcome of the recent Gopher basketball games have not been about talent. The Gophers were embarassed by Ohio State, and might as well not have made the trip to Columbus if they weren’t going to even try. Minnesota followed that up with a win against Northwestern that should have been a blow out but instead was almost another loss due to lazyness and poor decision making. The Gophers almost gave Penn State their first Big Ten win of the year due to sloppiness. It all culminated in that most recent loss to Michigan, a game that was essential for any chance to make it back to the NCAA tournament, and the team didn’t care. That is unacceptable.
I fully understand that this year has not gone the way anyone expected. Damian Johnson recently said that he expected the Gophers to be undefeated at this point of the season. Those expectations look laughable now, but if everything had gone right, there is little reason to believe that the Gophers wouldn’t at least be in the Top 25 now and battling for a Big Ten title. Off the court issues, close losses, excessively large egos, more close losses, and more off the court issues have torn apart the season, and that wears on fans, players, and coaches. But it shouldn’t wear on the team’s effort. If certain players have given up on the season and just want it to be over, they should have the decency to let the coaches know.
Sunday’s game doesn’t matter if the Gophers are concerned about their place in the Big Ten standings or the NCAA tournament. Winning doesn’t matter much either. It is now too late to care about that. The game does matter for the future of the program. Tubby Smith needs to find players that are willing to play hard, scrap for loose balls, dive on the floor, take a charge, and display an ounce or two of pride. If they are on the roster, they need to be in the game.
Don’t pay attention to the score tomorrow. Pay attention to whether the Gophers care, and if they don’t maybe you shouldn’t either.