Tubby Smith's Minnesota Golden Gophers weren't expected to amount to much this season once big man Trevor Mbakwe went down with an injury early in the year. The Gophers surprised people by finishing the non-conference schedule with an impressive 12-1 record, however, putting them in the mix as at least a bubble team when bracketologists began looking at who might deserve spots in the NCAA Tournament.
As March Madness creeps closer, though, the team has crumbled. The Gophers have been able to hang close with the majority of the teams in the Big Ten, but Wednesday's loss to the Michigan St. Spartans showed that the U of M simply might not be ready for a run during the best time in college basketball.
The only senior currently playing for the Gophers is Ralph Sampson III and, though he's a talented enough player, he hasn't shown to be the type of player Minnesota can count on in the clutch or the leader the young guns can look to when the going gets tough. Sampson's play was solid against the Spartans -- better than it has been in quite awhile, in fact -- but leadership was lacking as the Gophers continued to turn the ball over while the game was in the balance.
In fact, as SB Nation's The Daily Gopher wrote in their recap, Minnesota simply gave away the game.
The announcers nailed it when they said how the Gophers have nobody willing or desiring to take the a big shot. For three minutes we passed the ball around until we turned it over.
It's so frustrating that we played so well, with so much confidence, for 37 minutes and then play so scared and timid for the final three. Michigan State is leading the Big Ten for a reason, but we had them held with our hand around their throats ... and then we pissed down our own leg.
This column isn't meant to say that Wednesday night's loss was season-ending for the Gophers. Wednesday night's game was considered a "win and get in" scenario by some pundits, but the book can't be completely shut just because of a loss to the top team in the conference. Tubby's team has shown they have the talent to hang with the most talented squads in college basketballl and, if they can somehow figure out how to finish, there are still chances at making it to the Holy Grail that is the NCAA Tournament.
Minnesota has two big games coming up against ranked teams with the Top 25 ranked Indiana Hoosiers coming to the Twin Cities for a game on Sunday before the Gophers go on the road to play the 15th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers on Tuesday night. If the Gophers can rally from Wednesday night's loss to post a pair of wins in those conference contests, March Madness would positively be a possibility.