It’s become a horrifying staple of the Tubby Smith tenure. Start hot, get ranked, win a nice game in the Big Ten … and promptly collapse. Before last night’s heart-wrenching loss to Illinois it was unclear whether or not the Gophers were experiencing the same type of collapse that has accompanied the last two years — they faced a staggering array of talent to begin the season and actually pulled out a couple of nice wins against Michigan State and on the road at Illinois. Sure, they dropped a bad game to Northwestern, but who could really fault them for succumbing to Michigan at home and Indiana and Wisconsin on the road. Those were tough matchups. They were still taking care of business at home with wins over Iowa and Nebraska. Last night’s game against Illinois was supposed to be the game to get them back on track. If they couldn’t beat the best teams in the conference they sure should be able to take care of business against the bottom half, especially at The Barn.
But after another loss in which the Gophers failed to execute on offense or adapt to the changes that Illinois threw at them midgame it’s starting to smell a whole lot like another Tubby meltdown. The Gophers, now losers of six of their last eight games have lost two games they were “supposed to win” without picking up game in which they’ve been the underdog. It’s one thing for a team to lose a game they aren’t supposed to. It’s college basketball; it happens. But without being able to pick up a surprise game against a top team – something the Gophers have been unable to do – then things start to be viewed a little differently.
Ordinarily I’d pick the Gophers to win five of their final seven games. They get Wisconsin at home and face four, FOUR, teams in the bottom half of the conference. And with a win over Illinois last night I’d certainly have more confidence in the team to finish off the season with wins over the teams they should beat. Now I’m not so certain. If they can’t beat Illinois at home how can we expect them to beat Iowa on the road, or Wisconsin at home, or even Purdue on the road, much less against Indiana or Ohio State. They’ve been in a funk for the better part of three weeks now and show no signs of escaping it. You hate to even bring up the word “bubble” given the season the Gophers had up to this point, but their continued lack of execution is sending them in that direction.
I don’t want to rehash what’s been going wrong with the team because we’ve covered it quite extensively and things haven’t yet changed. But if the Gophers can’t pull out a win against Wisconsin then they’re definitely entering danger territory in terms of the postseason. A loss to Wisconsin means that every game after that in which they’re favored is close to a must win. That’s not only a position we don’t want too be in, but a position I never thought we’d have to discuss this season.
The Gophers still have plenty of breathing room, and their position in the most-recent AP Poll in which they have the most votes of an unranked team means they still have the respect of the media despite their recent struggles. And with a shiny RPI they don’t have to do a whole lot to turn the season around. The question is, will that happen?
It’s hard to be confident of that at this point.