CHICAGO -- Seriously: What's wrong with Minnesota?
What is it, exactly, that allowed the Gophers to look like one of the best teams in the country for the first two months of the season, and utterly pedestrian for the final six weeks? Why can the Gophers play urgent, efficient basketball against the best team in the country -- which they did as recently as Feb. 26, when they knocked off Indiana at home -- and some of the ugliest basketball in the country in season-ending losses to Nebraska and Purdue?
How can Minnesota, so desperate to turn a month and change of bad losses into a lasting tournament run, begin their first postseason game with a 16-point, 22-shot, 11-turnover first half? How can they get back in the game so easily and obviously, only to surrender their lead late -- allowing Brandon Paul to hit the smooth game winner that gave Illinois its 51-49 win here Thursday?
What is it about these guys, anyway?
"That's a good question," Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe said.
"I don't know," Andre Hollins said, following a long, searching pause. "It's just … I don't know."
On one hand, it's pretty easy to explain: Minnesota is fundamentally flawed. The Gophers turn over the ball too often, and they have all season; Minnesota had the highest turnover percentage (21.3) in the Big Ten this season. Its 19 turnovers Thursday cost it early, and cost it late, leading to key opportunities for Illinois as it clawed back in the game in the closing moments. Turnovers are always bad (um, duh), but the trait is especially problematic for the Gophers, whose best feature -- their national-best offensive rebounding -- relies on them having actually attempted a shot in the first place. When that doesn't happen, which is often, the Gophers' entire offense breaks down.
And that's just the offense. Minnesota's defense, which ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points per possession allowed this season, remains a constant issue.
But a deeper question remains unanswered. How can a team with a sixth-year senior star such as Mbakwe -- and experienced, veteran players in every other role -- not improve these fatal flaws throughout a four-month season? Why does Minnesota, despite all the flashes of brilliance, still play so disjointed on both ends of the floor?
Between sighs, Gophers coach Tubby Smith ventured at an answer.
"We have been taking care of the ball better the past few games, and we tried to simplify our offense today and be more of a ball-possession type of game," Smith said. "And just like you saw, the guys fumbled the ball a little bit. I don't know what was happening."
"It kind of epitomized what we -- the way our play has been so erratic, so up-and-down, so inconsistent," Smith said.
If there is any good news in Thursday for the Gophers, it's that even despite this loss, their NCAA tournament resume is still likely to end up on the right side of the bubble; the Gophers retain a top-25 RPI, the No. 2-ranked schedule in the country (including the No. 12-ranked nonconference schedule), and wins against Memphis, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, all of which should keep them in better shape than much of the bubble -- even if Smith said his team would be sweating it out through Selection Sunday.
But that is little consolation. After all, what good is going to the tournament if you're bound to limp home after a first-round exit? Forget peaking in March. The Gophers would settle for stopping a free fall.
"I know they want to play well, they want to play together," Smith said. "We got a good group of guys. We just haven't had that take-charge, 'I got it under control, I'm in control here' type of person."
Maybe it is a lack of leadership. Or energy. Or focus. Or maybe it's just as simple as a turnover-prone, rebound-reliant offense and a mediocre defense. Whatever the answer is, Minnesota has to find it soon. Indeed, it might already be too late.