Minn. has work to do for postseason

Halfway through Big Ten season, Smith gives team less than desired grade.

by Marco LaNave

March seems like a long way away in Minnesota, and not just because of cold temperatures or snow on the ground. Now halfway through the Big Ten regular season, the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team (13-8 overall, 4-5 Big Ten) gave itself a longer road to next monthâÄôs NCAA tournament Sunday when it lost handily to now-No. 13 Ohio State. Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said after the loss that he was only worried about how his team could win another game, choosing not to look ahead. Junior guard Blake Hoffarber, who was on the Gophers NCAA tournament team last season, said a team fighting for a bid needs to have a short memory. âÄúJust keep focused,âÄù Hoffarber said. âÄúA lot of teams have a little slipup âĦ weâÄôve just got to focus on every game, not think of the game ahead, and just take care of business.âÄù Smith said he would give his team a B grade for focus and concentration amid distractions this season. But on the court, the team has unfinished business in the Big Ten. âÄúWe really have probably a C-minus or a D, based on what weâÄôve done in conference play,âÄù Smith said. âÄúBut thatâÄôs not to say that we havenâÄôt been trying.âÄù ThereâÄôs still plenty of time for the Gophers to make an impression on the selection committee, said David Worlock, associate director of the Division I menâÄôs basketball championship. âÄúItâÄôs too soon to say, âÄòTheyâÄôre on the outside looking in,âÄô or âÄòTheyâÄôre in, but they need to be careful,âÄôâÄù he said. Minnesota will merit consideration because of its difficult schedule both in and outside of the conference, Worlock said. Two members of a 10-person committee closely follow the Big Ten, such that they are aware of minute details such as weather conditions affecting a team travelling on the road, Worlock said. The GophersâÄô circumstances of playing without two recruits and having four players suspended or ineligible at different points this season are well known. Junior point guard Al Nolen, who has already missed three games because of academic ineligibility, wonâÄôt play the rest of the season after his appeal to the NCAA was denied, according to a Tuesday press release from the University of Minnesota. Without Nolen, the Gophers have struggled defensively, especially on the perimeter. Against Ohio State, they allowed 85 points, the most by the program under Tubby Smith. With regard to selection for the tournament, Worlock said if a team loses a significant player during the season, it âÄúcould definitely alter the committeeâÄôs thinking about a certain team.âÄù NCAA Bylaw 31.3 states that on the selection of teams for championship competitions, a sportâÄôs governing committee shall use a teamâÄôs record, its strength of schedule and âÄúeligibility and availability of student-athletes for NCAA championshipsâÄù in addition to any other criteria to select teams for competition. It further states that an ineligible, injured or unavailable athlete âÄúdoes not necessarily disqualify a team from consideration,âÄù and that the committee must decide whether a team would have been considered for selection without the contribution of a player. âÄúTheyâÄôd have to look at how theyâÄôre playing with what they have available,âÄù Worlock said. In regard to MinnesotaâÄôs current résumé, Big Ten Network basketball analyst Jim Jackson said the GophersâÄô problem is that their signature wins are coupled with losses to poorer teams. âÄúThey have a lot of work to do, when youâÄôre talking about making it to the tournament and (right now) not having signature wins, and not having a really good record in conference,âÄù Jackson said. Jackson said he thinks Minnesota (now 1-4 against the top 25 and 2-7 on the road) must win its home games against No. 16 Wisconsin on Feb. 18 and No. 8 Purdue on Feb. 24. Without both of those wins, the Gophers probably have to make a strong run in the Big Ten tournament March 11-14. Despite the distractions and disappointments of the season, Smith said the teamâÄôs postseason goals are still attainable. âÄúIâÄôve got a lot of faith in our players and a lot of hope and belief that we can be one of the top teams in this league,âÄù Smith said.