Another game against a better team, and the Gophers lost another close game. When there once would have been gasps of horror, there were instead grumbles of inevitability. Losing close games has been become something of the norm for Gopher basketball teams in recent years.
Other than the overtime victory against Illinois and the still somewhat miraculous win at Indiana, the Gophers have been on the wrong end of nail-biters throughout the Big Ten season. For Tubby Smith critics, this is one of their biggest gripes. For Tubby Smith apologists, close losses are a testament to just how close the Gophers are to putting all the pieces together. Both sides need to revisit reality. The closeness of the score matters little, and wins and losses mean much, much more.
Looking at close games as a group, without context, lacks meaning. The Gophers played some close games against inferior opponents in the non-conference season and won. They nearly knocked off Michigan State, the presumed Big Ten Champion, but ultimately lost. Did the team play better when they beat DePaul or Indiana State than when they lost to the Spartans? Was Tubby a worse coach when the Gophers lost in double-overtime at Illinois than when his team beat Indiana State in Orlando. A much better indicator of how well the team plays is wins and losses, and fans and the media would be well advised to focus on the results of the games than the score, at risk of fans and media alike seeming to be more in favor of blow-out losses than the seemingly endless stream of near-misses. If you are not content looking merely at wins and losses, and do have some desire to find a deeper meaning, it would be more beneficial to compare the final score to pre-game expectations. A one point home win over the worst team in the Big Ten should be more alarming than a one point road loss to the best team in the Big Ten.
Close losses do take a toll on players, and it must be hard for them to take the court the games after the close losses, knowing what could have been. Confidence is key, and the late-game meltdowns have a compounding effect. Following the teams first Big Ten win of the season, they had a bit of swagger. They knew they could win where two the best teams in the country could not. After an over-time loss at home to Wisconsin, the Gophers must have been wondering just what they have to do to win at home. The loss to the Spartans made that worse.
Barring something entirely ungopher-like, this season will not be a success by most measures. However, it does not need to be a failure. The best remaining outcome of this season is to give the team something to build on, something to give them confidence, something to make them look forward to next season.
The Gophers have two remaining home games left on the schedule, both against teams they beat on the road. If they can manage to secure sweeps against Indiana and Nebraska, they should at least make the N.I.T. which gives them more games, more practice, and more to look forward to. It might even give them some confidence for next season.
Big games don’t go away when a team is eliminated from NCAA tournament contention, they just become big for different reasons.