John Shurna became Northwestern's all-time leading scorer at Minnesota's expense.

Cue the broken record.

With an easier route to a postseason berth hanging in the balance and a chance to give themselves some much-needed breathing room in the at-large conversation, the Gophers promptly went into Welsh-Ryan arena laid an egg against bubble-rival Northwestern. Leaving them at 5-9 in conference play and gasping for air like a fish out of water.

For context, the Gophers were in a virtual play-in game with Northwestern to remain in the projected NCAA tournament with experts concluding that whoever won the game in Evanston would likely keep that team in the “in” column when determining at-large teams. Consider the Gophers axed from that list. Minnesota now finds itself needing to win the final four games of the season to bring itself back into the discussion for at-large consideration and have hopes of avoiding the NIT. Winning the final four games Minnesota has ahead of itself would be a considerable achievement for any team, much less the recently hapless Gophers, who now much take down Michigan State and Indiana at home, travel to the Kohl Center in Madison to upset the Wisconsin Badgers before securing the season finale at home against Nebraska. For those keeping track at home, that requires three wins over top-25 teams.

The loss to Northwestern extended Minnesota’s recent downturn and showcased some pretty uninspired play in one of the more important games of the season. For starters, the team committed 18 turnovers (and forced only 8). Of those 18 turnovers, 14 were committed by the starting five and outside of Julian Welch, who was far and away the best player for Minnesota, the starters scored only 17 points while committing 11 turnovers. Not only is that poor execution on the floor, it shows a lack of preparation for the game and the inability to concentrate in what may have been a season-sealing loss for the Gophers.

The question is, does a loss like this get put on the backs of the players or the coach? If you listen to Tubby’s post-game comments then it very much appears that he thinks the players are to blame. But watching the team struggle, yet again, against Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone (which is a novelty defense, at best) the Gophers showed lack of preparation and the inability to execute in the half-court set. While the execution part is on the players, the supreme lack of preparation can only be blamed on the coach. By the end of the first half it was apparent that the Gophers just didn’t have the drive to take back the game or contend with Northwestern’s energy. It’s not the first time Minnesota has looked ill-prepared for a game either, and the two inexplicable losses to Iowa showed the inability to go up against a zone defense.

It wasn’t for lack of chances, either. Northwestern didn’t kill the Gophers from the three-point line (though they did hit some at key shots at critical junctures) going only 10-28 from deep and Minnesota killed the rebounding battle, pulling down 12 offensive rebounds to Northwestern’s five. Rather, the lack of concentration decimated Minnesota’s chances to claw back in to the game. Turnovers at key times, ill-advised shots against the zone and missed free throw chances when getting to the line are mistakes that point back to lack of hustle and concentration. These errors make it considerably difficult to hang with a team who is making few mistakes. In the end, it was obvious to anyone watching the game live that Northwestern wanted the game much more and were much more prepared for the contest than the Gophers, who might as well have been sleepwalking.

The loss points back to broader problems for Minnesota, who have seen a short burst of hope in January – with wins over Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois – devolve into a nightmarish February. Dating back to Jan. 22, when the Gophers beat Northwestern at home in convincing fashion, the team has gone 2-5 and fallen to 9th in the Big Ten. Only Illinois has had a worse stretch of games, with the Illini having lost 8 of their last 9 games.

Perhaps we gave the team too much credit when they seemingly turned things around in mid-January, since that success seems to have only been a flash in the pan. Without Trevor Mbakwe, the team has shown itself no better than 8th or 9th-best in the conference. Ahead of the Nebraskas and Penn States but behind the tier-two teams like Purdue and Indiana. And given what we’ve seen on the court, that’s who the Gophers are this year. We’ve seen the team execute at times and show flashes of brilliance, but for the most part those flashes have been exactly that – short lived.

Have we already seen the best this year’s team has to offer? Did they peak with wins over Indiana and Illinois? They certainly have a chance to prove themselves in the final four games of the season, but given the effort we saw with their season on the line against the Wildcats, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll suddenly perk up and pop Sparty in the mouth on Wednesday.

Given all of their recent struggles, however, the Gophers still find themselves in the bubble discussion, albeit just barely. In fact, bracketologist Joe Lunardi has them on the “next four out” list, even after their loss to Northwestern. That means Minnesota still has a slim, slim chance to play themselves back into things. The problem is that they are now in a position where they have to beat at least a couple very, very good teams to even have a chance at getting at-large consideration. Again, the chances are still there to play back into respectability, it’s just a matter of taking advantage of them.

A couple notes from the game:

  • Joe Coleman made his way back to the scoring column and had a nice game with 12 points after going scoreless in his previous four. That was fun.
  • Ralph Sampson sucked again for the fourth straight game, putting up four points and grabbing two rebounds. For comparison’s sake, Oto Osenieks had four points and FIVE rebounds. And he’s 6’8″. There was talk today about mixing up the starting lineup going forward, which I’m not opposed to. Sampson has played so poorly this year that it’s a minor miracle he still sees time as a starter. Elliott Eliason does Sampson’s job as a starter already and with more intensity. And he’s only a freshman. Free Elliott!