Gophers digging a bigger hole

An optimist give Minnesota a long shot for postseason; a pessimist isn’t surprised by slump.

by Josh Katzenstein

I truly feel for Tubby Smith . With the Gophers menâÄôs basketball teamâÄôs devastating loss to Northwestern on Sunday, the third-year head coachâÄôs streak of 20-win seasons is in considerable danger. Smith has won at least 20 games in 16 consecutive seasons, but this seasonâÄôs team will need to heat up exponentially for Smith to make it 17. The Gophers are 14-10 overall (5-7 Big Ten) with six games remaining. Postseason wins count, so with a few more regular season victories, plus one or two in the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers could reach 20. LetâÄôs throw in one win in the National Invitation Tournament, too, if the Gophers make it. Yes, if. LetâÄôs be honest. The Gophers have two âÄúchancesâÄù to make the 2010 NCAA tournament: 1. Win the Big Ten tournament, or 2. Win the last six games, including impressive efforts against No. 4 Purdue and No. 14 Wisconsin, and at least two games in the conference tournament. The eternal optimist in me thinks both scenarios are within the realm of possibility, as long as Minnesota doesnâÄôt have to face Michigan or the Evan Turner Buckeyes in the Big Ten tournament. Why does even the optimist fear a Michigan team with a Ratings Percentage Index of 127? LetâÄôs rewind to MinnesotaâÄôs disappointing âÄî and shocking to many âÄî home loss to the Wolverines last Thursday night. In losing to a team that entered 11-12 with losses in five of its previous six games, the Gophers proved they cannot shut down strong individual talents. Wolverines guard Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims are by far the two best players on the court when Minnesota plays Michigan. They are the reason Michigan won both matchups in 2009 . They are the reason Michigan won Thursday. The GophersâÄô loss to Michigan, a team that likely wonâÄôt make the Big Dance, made it clear that, barring a conference championship run, the NIT is what Minnesota is now fighting for. Unfortunately for Tubby Smith, winning six more games looks as if it will be an uphill battle, even if the Gophers reach the NIT. The pessimist in me, who has avidly watched Gophers athletics in multiple arenas since 2007, sees the 20-win benchmark as completely out of reach. Raise your hand if you remember the 2008 Minnesota football season. The Gophers started 7-1. They had the ball with 26 seconds remaining in a tied homecoming game against Northwestern. Skip some painful detailsâĦ the Wildcats return an interception for a touchdown and the win. Minnesota doesnâÄôt win another game and finishes 7-6 . Now for a more recent scene: On Sunday, the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team visited Northwestern for a battle of two teams thinking, âÄúThis game is a perfect opportunity for a beatdown that can begin our hopeful run toward the Big Dance.âÄù A buddy of mine asked Sunday morning who I thought would win. I confidently said Northwestern. By about 5:30 p.m. Sunday, I found myself eating my words. Minnesota had been up by 13 points and led by double digits for a five-minute span in the second half . Unfortunately I couldnâÄôt watch the game, but I kept tabs on it because I hate being wrong (and itâÄôs my job). I checked back near the end of regulation, when the Gophers trailed 57-54. Junior guard Blake Hoffarber then buried a 3-pointer to force overtime. Minnesota made five of six field goals in overtime and still lost, 77-74. Shocker. The Gophers are a better team than Michigan, but they canâÄôt match the WolverinesâÄô top-notch talent. This yearâÄôs Gophers are better and more talented than Northwestern. Yet they couldnâÄôt hold a 13-point lead with 7:30 remaining on Sunday . You could argue that it was a conference road game in a hostile environment, but youâÄôd be wrong. The 6,000-plus crowd in Welsh-Ryan Arena offers the feel of a high school game and is anything but hostile. Not to mention the Barnyard took a trip down to Evanston, Ill., with about 100 University of Minnesota students to help cheer the team to victory. It was all for naught, though, just like the résumé-building November win over Butler. The glass is half empty, and the Gophers are running out of time to fill it up.