College Basketball Nation: Tubby Smith

Marcus Smart enjoys his return

February, 22, 2014
Feb 22
STILLWATER, Okla. -- The last time Marcus Smart had walked off the court, he was shouting, pointing his finger and slapping away the hands of anyone who tried to console him.

In his return from a three-game suspension that began with a shove at Texas Tech, Smart walked off court with a big smile. Then he gave his coach a big hug.

“It was good to see him smile,” said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who returned the embrace.

“Hadn’t see that in a while.”

The Marcus Smart who rose to college basketball stardom while playing with infectious joy -- instead of contagious frustration -- finally resurfaced Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena. The menacing two-way player resurfaced, too, lifting Oklahoma State to a convincing 84-62 victory over the Red Raiders to snap the school’s longest losing streak in 41 years.

“Marcus was the difference,” said teammate Le’Bryan Nash, who led the Cowboys with 21 points. “Getting our point guard back, our leader back, it was exciting. He controlled the whole game. That’s what we’ve needed. It was an ‘A-plus’ performance for him.”

In other words, Smart looked like his old self.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Smart had 16 points and a career-high 10 assists in his return to the Oklahoma State lineup.
He scored 16 points, dished out a career-high 10 assists and stole the ball six times, not including two offensive fouls he forced with tenacious defense.

“It was fun out there for the first time in a long time,” Smart confessed.

The frustration of underperforming as his NBA draft stock tumbled on a team that was massively underachieving finally got the best of Smart on Feb. 8 in Lubbock, Texas.

Hearing something that may or may not have been said, he charged into the stands and shoved Texas Tech fan Jeffrey Orr, which prompted the suspension.

Smart was in Stillwater while his teammates got routed at Texas. He was in the locker room when they fell to Bedlam rival Oklahoma. And he watched on TV as they came up short in an overtime defeat at Baylor.

“It was crazy being able to practice with my team and not to get to play with them,” Smart said. “I felt lost.”

But while away, Smart seemed to find himself. He also saw some of what had been ailing a team that had lost seven in a row. And back on the court, he finally played without the draft or preseason expectations weighing down his broad shoulders.

"When he's playing his best," Ford said, "he energizes everybody."

After a four-minute scoring drought, Smart energized the Cowboys midway through the first half. Collecting a deflection, he flipped the ball behind his head to Markel Brown for an easy layup. After Phil Forte nailed a 3-pointer, Smart stepped in front of a Texas Tech pass and finished the play with a finger roll. Brown canned a 3 on the following possession, capping a 12-2 run that ended with Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith calling a timeout.

"Whenever you have a player of Marcus Smart's caliber, it can take you to another level,” Smith said. “They were energized having Marcus back."

During another critical sequence seconds before halftime, Smart muscled his way into the lane for a driving basket. He stole the ensuing inbounds pass and banked in the shot just before the buzzer sounded, giving the Cowboys a nine-point lead.

“It was a big momentum change for us,” Smart said. “Definitely got this crowd into it. Took the life out of Tech going into halftime.”

The Cowboys swarmed Texas Tech in the second half, before Smart delivered the exclamation point. In the last two minutes, he bounded through the lane for a left-handed jam. The next possession, after his jump shot was partially blocked, Smart managed to bat the ball to Kamari Murphy under the basket for another slam.

Moments later, Ford subbed him out to a standing ovation. Leading to a big Smart smile.

“Positive energy is kinda weird,” Smart said. “It becomes contagious. Losing was very contagious. With this victory, if we can play like we played today, maybe that can become contagious, and we can start a different streak. A winning streak.”

Despite losing seven in a row, Oklahoma State kept its NCAA tournament hopes flickering with Saturday’s win. Sure, the Cowboys hammered a Texas Tech team long on coaching and short on talent, especially with leading scorer Jaye Crockett hobbled by tendonitis in his knee.

But this wasn’t just the best Oklahoma State had played since Smart’s suspension. It was the best the Cowboys had looked at least since beating Texas in early January, and maybe all the way back to the nonconference portion of the schedule when they jumped to a 12-1 start and a No. 6 ranking in the polls.

“Doesn’t mean we’re back,” Ford cautioned. “Doesn’t mean everything is perfect. It just means we’re capable.”

The Cowboys had showed signs of being capable, even before Smart's return. Despite its depleted roster, Oklahoma State carried a lead over the Sooners into the final two minutes.

Having to use an array of walk-ons, the Cowboys simply ran out of gas at Baylor.

“The last two games, we played decently, played hard,” Ford said. “We were hoping that when Marcus came back, we would build on that and he would help us take that next step. Today we did. Don’t know about tomorrow. But we did today.”

If Oklahoma State (17-10, 5-9 Big 12) can keep taking such steps, the NCAA tournament could still be within reach. The Cowboys go to last-place TCU on Monday before getting Kansas in Stillwater next weekend. A victory over the Jayhawks might be enough to take Oklahoma State back to the right side of the bubble.

“When your back is against the wall, and that’s the only way out, amazing things can happen,” Ford said.

Especially when Marcus Smart is playing with a smile.

Rick Pitino: His coaching tree

September, 4, 2013
Rick PitinoStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesRick Pitino hasn't just won two national titles and taken three separate schools to a Final Four -- he also has provided a strong group of assistants who have had success of their own.
Editor's Note: Three legendary college basketball coaches -- Jerry Tarkanian, Rick Pitino and Guy Lewis -- take center stage this weekend as the trio is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. We'll be devoting a day to each as we examine what made them HOF-worthy. Here is Tuesday's tribute to Tarkanian.

There are coaching trees and then there is the forest birthed by Rick Pitino. Imagine crossing a redwood with a sequoia. And then adding the Rockefeller Christmas tree on top for good measure.

That gets you maybe a quarter of the way up the branches of Pitino’s tree. No fewer than 13 of his ex-assistants and/or players currently serve as college head coaches (Mick Cronin, Scott Davenport, Billy Donovan, Travis Ford, Marvin Menzies, Richard Pitino, Kareem Richardson, Steve Masiello, Herb Sendek, Tubby Smith, Reggie Theus, Kevin Willard, Sean Woods). And if you stretch the list to include former head coaches or current assistants, it goes on for miles.

Between them, Pitino’s disciples have four national championships of their own (two for Donovan, one each for Smith and Davenport). So trying to pick the best of this family tree is like trying to pick your favorite uncle. Highly subjective.

Consider this attempt just that, then -- an attempt to amass a list of the most successful ... with an out clause list of others who were left off.

1. Billy Donovan: Before he won two national titles at the University of Florida, Donovan was Billy the Kid, the feisty point guard who led Providence and Pitino to the Final Four in 1987. Two years later, Donovan and his mentor reconnected at the University of Kentucky, where Donovan cut his coaching teeth as an assistant until 1994. Embarking on his own as a head coach, first at Marshall and now at Florida, Donovan has rolled up 13 NCAA tournament bids and has been to at least the Elite Eight in five of the past six appearances.

2. Tubby Smith: Smith had the unenviable job of following in Pitino’s well-heeled footsteps at Kentucky, when Pitino’s one-time assistant returned to Lexington as head coach in 1997. Smith picked up right where his old boss left off, leading the Wildcats to their seventh national championship in his first season. Smith would go on to reach the 100-win mark faster than any other UK coach not named Adolph Rupp and collect five SEC titles. The former head coach at Tulsa and Georgia went on to Minnesota and is now at Texas Tech.

[+] EnlargeClarence Weatherspoon, Jeff Van Gundy
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesJeff Van Gundy went from being an assistant under Rick Pitino at Providence to leading the New York Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals.
3. Jeff Van Gundy: The popular NBA analyst and former NBA head coach was part of a pretty impressive bench lineup at Providence. Van Gundy was the graduate assistant, alongside assistants Herb Sendek and Stu Jackson, when the Friars went to the Final Four in 1987. Van Gundy, who was working as a high school head coach before Pitino hired him, used that coaching gig to launch his own career. He’d eventually serve as head coach for both the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets.

4. Jim O’Brien: The son-in-law of one Hall of Famer (Jack Ramsay), O’Brien would begin working alongside a future Hall of Famer in 1994, when he joined Pitino at Kentucky. Long a college coach in his own right, O’Brien helped Pitino usher the glory years back to Lexington and when Pitino jumped to the Boston Celtics, O’Brien went with him. Little did he know it was the beginning of his own career. It was O’Brien who would take over in Boston after Pitino epically flamed out, twice leading the Celtics to the playoffs. He’d then go on to two more NBA head-coaching jobs, with Philadelphia and Indiana, before retiring at the end of last season.

5. Herb Sendek: The master of his own pretty heavily limbed coaching tree, Sendek got his start under Pitino. The western Pennsylvania native joined the Providence staff as a graduate assistant before moving up to assistant coach. When Pitino left PC for Kentucky, Sendek went with him, spending four seasons with the Wildcats before launching his own head-coaching career. Sendek has gone from Miami (Ohio) to NC State to Arizona State and now has 20 years of head-coaching experience. He has made seven NCAA tournaments and has three conference coach of the year awards.

6. Frank Vogel: No one can trace their roots directly to Pitino quite as thoroughly as the Indiana Pacers head coach. After meeting Pitino at Five-Star camp in Pittsburgh, Vogel, then a student at Juniata College, decided he was transferring on the spot to Kentucky. He had no promise of anything from Pitino but after loitering around the gym for weeks, he got a two-week trial period helping out assistant Jim O’Brien. A year later he was a student manager, and after graduation served as a video coordinator. The coach was so impressed with Vogel’s abilities that when Pitino went on to the Boston Celtics, he brought Vogel with him, hiring him as the team’s video coordinator. Vogel would outlast Pitino in Boston, staying on as an assistant coach under O’Brien. Six years later, when O’Brien was fired at Indiana, Vogel was named the Pacers’ interim coach. This past season under Vogel, the Pacers made their first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2004.

7. Mick Cronin: The son of a head coach counts his father and Pitino as his two biggest mentors. He joined Pitino at Louisville in 2001 after five seasons at the University of Cincinnati under Bob Huggins. Eventually becoming Pitino’s right-hand man and associate coach, Cronin was lauded for his recruiting savvy and eventually parlayed that into a head-coaching job at Murray State. He led the Racers to two Ohio Valley titles and NCAA tourney appearances before leaving to lead his alma mater, Cincinnati. Cronin has been credited with reviving the Bearcats, who had just one returning player when he arrived on campus.

8. Ralph Willard: One of Pitino’s closest friends and confidants, Willard worked alongside the Hall of Famer in three different stretches -- first as an assistant with the Knicks (1987-1989), then later at Kentucky (1989-90) and finally, at Louisville (2009-2012). In between, Willard forged his own impressive career, serving as head coach at Holy Cross, Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky. He had his best success at his alma mater, Holy Cross, leading the program to four NCAA tournament berths and amassing a 192-117 record at the Patriot League school.

9. Travis Ford: The beloved Kentucky point guard started his career at Missouri but transferred to his home state school because he liked the style of its head coach. That would be Rick Pitino. Ford, fashioned in the same spitfire image of Billy Donovan, would take the Wildcats to three NCAA tournaments. With all that UK love and his coach’s endorsement, Ford landed his first head-coaching gig at the tender age of 26, taking over at NAIA Campbellsville. That led to a job at Eastern Kentucky -- and EKU’s first NCAA berth in 25 years -- which led to a job at Pitino’s alma mater, UMass (and an Atlantic 10 title) and now to Oklahoma State.

10. Scott Davenport: Maybe not as well known as others on this list, Davenport is every bit as successful. In his eighth season at Division II Bellarmine, Davenport has taken a program that was sub-.500 before he arrived all the way to a national championship in 2011. The former high school coach made the jump to the college game in 1996, joining Denny Crum’s staff at Louisville. When Pitino came aboard in 2001, Davenport stayed on staff, working with Pitino until 2005, when he moved on to Bellarmine.

11. Marvin Menzies: As a longtime assistant coach, Menzies' resume went on for pages before he joined Pitino at Louisville in 2005. Menzies’ career had hopscotched from the high school ranks to junior college to San Diego State to USC to UNLV. After just two seasons alongside Pitino, Menzies was a head coach, taking over at New Mexico State. He has since led the Aggies to three WAC titles and three NCAA tournament berths.

Others to be considered: Cal State Northridge head coach Reggie Theus (Louisville assistant, 2003-05); Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard (Louisville assistant, 2001-07); Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey (played at Kentucky); former NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson (Providence and New York Knicks assistant).
Weight has been a challenge for Minnesota center Maurice Walker throughout his career.

The 6-foot-10 big man weighed 340 pounds when he reached the Minneapolis campus in 2010. But he was a fluid post presence despite his size. He had some unique tools for a freshman center.

But the weight was clearly an issue. Still, he became a semi-reliable contributor for Tubby Smith’s squad as the pounds began to fall off his frame midway through his debut season.

Everything changed when he tore his posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in a December nonconference matchup against South Dakota State. Walker missed the rest of that season and all of 2011-12 as he recovered.

That’s when the weight came back. Walker averaged just 6.6 minutes per game in 2012-13.

Once Richard Pitino was hired as coach in April, Walker’s role in a system that thrives on speed and stamina was questioned due to the new coach’s emphasis on creating offense through full court pressure.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Walker
AP Photo/Jim MoneMinnesota center Maurice Walker, seen here in March, has reportedly lost 40 pounds this offseason.
Walker, however, viewed the change as a challenge.

Per Star Tribune columnist Chip Scoggins, the Canadian center has already lost more than 40 pounds in the offseason:
Not long after the Gophers introduced Richard Pitino as their new men’s basketball coach, rumors began to circulate that an unnamed player intended to seek his scholarship release and transfer to another program.

My gut reaction was, “Wonder where Maurice Walker will end up?”

It didn’t require much deductive reasoning to determine that Big Mo appeared ill-fitted for Pitino’s breakneck brand of basketball. At 310 pounds, Walker looked out of shape manning the low post in Tubby Smith’s plodding offense. How in the world would he ever survive in Pitino’s run-and-gun system? That’s like asking a pontoon to keep pace with speed boats. A change in scenery seemed inevitable.

In a touch of irony, the player who transferred -- Joe Coleman -- might have been the team’s best athlete. As for Walker, he decided to stick it out and make some life changes.

“Once I heard Pitino, I was really excited,” he said.

And then they met for the first time. Pitino has made Walker’s weight a standard quip in his public speeches, and he didn’t mince words in offering a blunt critique of his 6-10 junior center.

“[He said] it’s going to take a lot of work to get into shape and that I’m a long ways from where I need to be,” Walker said.

He’s still not there yet, but Walker has lost nearly 40 pounds through diet and fitness training. Noticeably slimmer, he hopes to lose an additional 15 to 20 pounds and enter next season around 255.

As someone who showed up on campus as a freshman weighing 340 pounds, Walker believes his career will follow a different arc with these changes to his body.

“Looking back at it now, I should have done this a long time ago,” he said.

A coaching change provided the necessary push, but Walker’s new outlook likely stems from a recognition that he was wasting an opportunity. He was either injured or too overweight to be considered anything but an intriguing unknown his first three years, including a redshirt season. His size became nothing more than a tease because he lacked the quickness and stamina to maintain anything.

Pitino needs Walker, and anyone else he can find, to boost his interior depth.

Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are gone.

Elliott Eliason is the only player on Minnesota's roster who is 6-10 or taller.

It appears, however, that Walker recognizes the contribution he could make on this season's squad. He has lost 70 pounds since 2010. And he’s determined to lose even more so he can help a Gophers team missing multiple pieces.

Video: New chapter for Tubby Smith

April, 2, 2013

Tubby Smith talks about taking over as Texas Tech's men's basketball coach.
1. Anthony Bennett's decision to leave for the NBA was expected. The UNLV freshman forward will contend for a top five position in the draft. But Bennett is not the norm in this season's class of possible draft picks. A number of players are making decisions to leave without any guarantee of position in the first round, let alone the second. The NCAA has given this new draft date rule a go and it's a failure. Having players make up their mind within a week after the Final Four (this year April 16) gives players no chance for a real read on their status without the chance to play in Chicago at the draft camp or for teams. The NBA's deadline of two weeks later is the one that holds real meaning. Still, international players can withdraw from the draft up until 10 days prior to the draft in June. Why shouldn't American college players be given the same chance? The ACC started this mess by pushing this rule to help coaches fill roster spots in the spring. Well, the talent level is hardly equal at this time of the year. The end product for the NBA and the college game would be better served with a more informed decision by any of the players considering leaving.

2. Tubby Smith's decision to go to Texas Tech should go down as one of the most surprising recent moves. I was convinced Smith would either take some time off after he was fired at Minnesota or maybe go back to the mid-Atlantic area to coach -- even if it were at a lower level. Smith can coach at any spot. But I wasn't sure he would want to take on another rebuild. Texas Tech will always have a hard climb in men's basketball in the Big 12. The Red Raiders have facilities but drawing has been an issue and the program hasn't resonated as much within the state. Texas Tech hasn't shied away from brand names with Bob Knight and now Smith. Smith has had to face plenty of challenges in his career. Clearly, he isn't ducking another chance at a point when he could have sought a softer landing. He'll need to ensure he's got a solid staff that is as energized for this tall task as much as he must be to take on getting the Red Raiders out the bottom of the Big 12.

3. As Chris Collins gets ready to take over Northwestern officially Tuesday, remember that coaching wasn't the issue with the Wildcats. Bill Carmody performed well in coaching Northwestern, as expected. The issue for Northwestern was unfortunate injuries and a few late-game plays/decisions on the court that cost them a chance to go to the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons. This past season never got off right due to the loss of three starters at various points of the season. Collins will provide positive energy and give Northwestern the youthful voice it now craves. Collins shouldn't have an issue recruiting, either. Players will want to sign up for the challenge of playing for him and getting the Wildcats to its first-ever NCAA tournament. Collins has a positive vibe about him and an ability to connect to any age group. This program was on the doorstep of breaking through. Carmody got them to that point. There's no reason Collins won't bust that door down. Finishing in the top eight in the eventual new 14-team Big Ten is more than palatable for Northwestern every few seasons. And the Big Ten should be in contention for eight bids on a yearly basis with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois and then a rotation from the rest, including 2014 newcomer Maryland, taking turns at No. 7 and No. 8.

Video: Parting shot -- Not winning enough

March, 31, 2013

John Saunders talks about the merits of Tubby Smith and Ben Howland, who were both fired since facing each other in the NCAA tournament.
1. Tubby Smith and his staff had no idea they were about to be fired Monday morning as they sat in a staff meeting at 10 a.m. going over recruiting, offseason workout plans and evaluations of the Gophers' loss to Florida the previous day. Members of the Minnesota staff said they were sitting in the meeting when they started receiving text messages from coaching colleagues telling them they had been fired. Smith told them that he had to meet with the administration at 1 p.m. It was then, according to the staff, that Smith and ultimately the staff found out they had been fired. Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague obviously has the right to fire Smith and the staff. But he should have handled this differently. This was akin to how Seth Greenberg and his staff found out he was being fired a year ago at Virginia Tech. Greenberg was unaware that a decision had already been made. A news conference had been called but Greenberg wasn't informed of the details of the event. ADs need to make sure the staff knows before the public. That's called common courtesy.

2. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips is expected to name a coach to replace Bill Carmody by the end of the week, according to a source. I'll be surprised if it's not Chris Collins of Duke. The Duke associate head coach has been interested in this job for years. The timing is right for him to leave Duke and forge his own path. He'll energize the program. But he'll need to have an experienced staff to deal with going against coaches like Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan. Collins shouldn't fret about being in crazed environments. He's done that his whole playing and coaching career at Duke.

3. I don't understand why schools are releasing that players are checking out the draft process but will make up their mind by April 16, the arbitrary NCAA deadline. There is no need to go public when all they're doing is seeking an opinion from the NBA advisory committee, which players do every year through their college coaches. There is no more testing the waters. And even if a player decides or states publicly he's coming back on April 16, he still has two weeks to tell the NBA he's in the draft. The NBA's deadline is the only one that matters for entering the NBA draft.

Two weeks ago, after his team's 51-49 loss to Illinois, Tubby Smith sat down at his news conference in the bowels of the United Center and tried to answer the same question -- differently phrased -- over and over: Why?

He sighed and rubbed his temples and looked at the stat sheet and tried to explain why the Gophers had finished their pre-NCAA tournament season with 11 losses in 16 games. Why his team could swarm No. 1 Indiana in its own building but couldn't focus against Nebraska or Purdue on the road. Why the Gophers still couldn't stop turning the ball over, why they couldn't give consistent effort on defense, and most of all, why -- despite having a sixth-year senior and former Big Ten rebounding champ in Trevor Mbakwe who had returned from an ACL injury to make one final March run -- the Gophers never found a clear leader.

[+] EnlargeTubby Smith
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAfter another disappointing late-season performance, Minnesota has decided to part ways with coach Tubby Smith.
"We just haven't had that take-charge, 'I got it under control, I'm in control here' type person," Smith said.

Which is when I probably figured it was time for Smith to move on. On Monday, as originally reported by CBS Sports' Jeff Goodman, Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague agreed.

Smith's answer -- that the team lacked leadership -- was a common refrain for him this season. It has some merit: You can't be with players every second of every day. You need hard workers to instill that in their teammates, and you need players who embrace the big moment and make their teammates feel trusted and supported and one big happy family. I get all of that.

But you're the coach. You get paid seven figures; your players get a scholarship, a dorm room and some free food. You're standing 15 feet from these 18- to 22-year-olds during games, you get approximately 453 timeouts per every 40 minutes of basketball, you see them every day during the season, you can work out with them in the summers -- at what point do you have to admit that it's on you? That if a college basketball coach is there to do anything -- after all, he can't set down screens -- it's to recruit promising players and then cultivate leadership and maturity among them? And that if they don't have those qualities by their fourth year in your program (or, in Mbakwe's case, his sixth), that maybe that whole process isn't going so well?

Many will cite Smith's 46-62 record in the Big Ten, but even more damning is his record in February. To wit:

2013: 3-4
2012: 1-7
2011: 1-6
2010: 4-3
2009: 2-5
2008: 4-4

All told that's 15-29 in February, the month in which college basketball teams are supposed to be improving and even peaking in advance of the NCAA tournament. It is not the be-all and end-all, and Smith did suffer an inordinate number of bad breaks with injuries and defections, but it can't be explained away. It's why this weekend's win over similarly cooked No. 6 seed UCLA was the Gophers' first tournament win under Tubby. They just never got better down the stretch.

This season was particularly frustrating in that regard, because there were none of the horribly timed injuries or defections that plagued Smith in recent years. There may have been personnel issues -- Mbakwe never seemed to get along with his coach, and he didn't exactly start the season off with a leadership bang -- but at the very least the Gophers were whole. They were promising, athletic, deep, with as physical a front line and as imposing a guard tandem as anyone in the country. Despite some obvious flaws (turnovers, most importantly) they began the season 15-1 and amassed some of the more unimpeachable RPI numbers in the country.

But they never got better. If anything, they got worse. They finished eighth in the Big Ten in points per possession allowed. They turned the ball over at a higher rate than any team in the league. Given that Minnesota led the nation in offensive rebounding rate, turnovers were doubly bad, because it meant the Gophers weren't even giving themselves a shot to go up and get the ball. And this very obvious flaw was never corrected during the season. In the loss to Illinois, Minnesota turned the ball over 19 times ... in 55 possessions.

Smith is by no means a bad coach. He won a national title at Kentucky, and he has a list of impressive credentials on his résumé, including 18 20-win seasons in his 21 years as a head coach. Frustrated Minnesota fans clapping along during this post should at least brace themselves for the other side of the coin: Minnesota is not a particularly desirable job. There are no practice facilities to speak of. It is cold. The Barn is charming, but 17-year-olds typically prefer futuristic and flashy to charm. Recruiting against the rest of the Big Ten is hard enough already, but now that Iowa is locking down more and more in-state talent and Iowa State is becoming a resurgent power under Fred Hoiberg -- not to mention the huge money Nebraska is investing into its program right now -- well, let's just say Gophers fans ought to be realistic about what to expect. The ceiling is limited. It's a challenge.

But so what? That doesn't mean they, or Teague, should be satisfied. In the past few years Gophers teams have not only been mediocre but downright lifeless. For whatever reason, Smith never got it going, never imbued the program with any energy or spark. Systemic challenges or no, who wants to settle for that?

No, the point is to compete. College basketball teams compete for tangible things -- Big Ten titles and tournament bids and Final Four appearances and banners -- but they also compete in more intangible ways. They compete with effort and hustle and spirit and a sense of community around an alma mater and players that kids can look up to, and if everyone buys in you don't have to go to the Final Four every year for fans to be happy. They just want to watch their team play hard.

Tangibly and intangibly, Smith's Gophers too often didn't compete -- even in this, their most promising and injury-free season.

What better sign that it's time for a coach to move on than that?
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?

[+] EnlargeTubby Smith
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe past six weeks have been filled with frustration for Minnesota and coach Tubby Smith.
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.
Well, well, well. Apparently, a few teams want to go to the tournament after all.

OK, so of course everyone wants to play in the NCAA tournament. But watching the past week or so of college hoops, you could have been convinced otherwise. Why, it was just last Saturday that basically every SEC bubble team lost a bad game, while Arizona State, St. John's, Iowa State, Indiana State and Akron, just to name a few, suffered the kind of losses that can cost you a bid in the tournament.

The weekdays since haven't been much better. Virginia spent all week undoing the résumé boost earned with its victory over Duke. Kentucky lost at Georgia. Baylor flopped against Texas. It got so bad we had to begin considering the fringiest of the fringe -- Southern Miss, Iowa, Providence, Maryland -- even though it was almost physically painful to imagine most of those teams in the tournament.

And then, finally, mercifully, some of these teams started acting like they wanted to play meaningful basketball in March. Kentucky, Tennessee, Boise State and Baylor all got huge wins at home. Iowa State held on at West Virginia. Even Cincinnati, which had been quietly slipping toward the bubble in recent weeks, avoided a brutal loss to South Florida.

It wasn't all good news. Oklahoma lost at TCU. Arizona State fell flat at Arizona. Xavier, Providence and St. John's all missed chances to get somewhere near reality in this thing. There were, as there always are, a handful of head-scratchers -- how Louisiana Tech goes three months without losing once and then drops back-to-back games in the matter of two days is beyond this humble bubbleologist.

But the end effect is clear: The bubble is just a little more firm than it was at the start of the day, a little tougher to crack. Good things happen when players play like they actually care about making the tournament. Who knew?


Kentucky: The biggest bubble story of the day, and almost certainly the most impactful, Kentucky's win over Florida put the Wildcats back on the right side of the bubble in their final regular-season opportunity. Considering where Kentucky was after its loss at Georgia this week -- all self-recrimination and disbelief -- it was a bit remarkable to stand up at the last possible moment, once and for all.

I won't spend a whole lot of time here, because you can read my reaction from this afternoon here. Long story short: UK is no lock to make the tournament, and it still has to navigate a tangle of prospective bad losses in the SEC tournament, but right now, compared to much of the rest of the bubble, the Wildcats are closer to being in than not.

Baylor: I am not above making a tired and dumb bodysnatchers joke -- see pretty much anything I've tweeted about Keith Appling for the past three weeks -- but rare is the opportunity to do so in regards to a team that plays inexplicably well. Today, Baylor is that team.

I mean, how else do you explain the Bears not just beating Kansas in Waco, Texas, but blowing Kansas out? When in the past seven days we've seen a) Baylor lose at home to K-State on one of the most heartbreaking (and poorly executed) final seconds of the season and b) lose 79-70 at Texas? That team -- a team that was admittedly still playing hard but looking utterly lost in doing so -- turned around and beat the Jayhawks by 23 points in the penultimate game of the regular season. How does that happen?

Complete shock aside, the bad news for the Bears (sorry) is that they're just 2-10 against the RPI top 50, 5-10 against the top 100, and still have a prohibitively high RPI (No. 73 entering Saturday). As nice as Saturday's win was, and for as much as it helped the Bears, the damage they did in recent weeks isn't so easy to overcome in one fell swoop. They still need more -- and a first-round Big 12 tourney shot against Oklahoma State is an awfully good place to start.

Boise State: In case you're not up to speed on the Broncos -- and no, they don't play their home games on blue hardwood -- they established their potential tournament case all the way back on Nov. 28, when they shocked Creighton (then the No. 11 team in the country) on its home floor. (Eight days earlier, they had pushed Michigan State 74-70, and we all wondered what was wrong with the Spartans. Go figure.) Since then, they've trucked along in the Mountain West in almost exactly the fashion you'd expect: They've beaten some of the league's toughest teams (UNLV, Colorado State) at home and fallen to some of the league's lesser squads (Air Force isn't a bad loss; Nevada is) on the road. In other words, today's win over San Diego State wasn't exactly revolutionary; it was a realistic get, and the Broncos got it. The one thing really setting Jeff Elorriaga & Co. apart from the rest of the bubble dregs is their quality wins. Add one more.

Tennessee: What is it with Tennessee and late-season boosts? The Volunteers did this last season, too, when they turned a brutal first two months into a 10-6 SEC performance and a late desperate push to get into the NCAA tournament. It didn't happen then, but after Saturday's home win over Missouri -- a thank-you card addressed to Phil Pressey is currently in the mail - it looks very much like it's happening now.

I'm not saying that a home win over Missouri is this huge bubble landmark. It's at least a degree or four below a win over Florida. Missouri's only true road wins all season came at Mississippi State and South Carolina. Road warriors these Tigers are not, but combined with UT's other work -- eight wins in its past nine games, including a 30-point demolition of Kentucky and its own victory over Florida -- the résumé is now right in the middle of the bubble picture. Like Kentucky, or really any of these SEC teams, anything can happen going away. But for now, the news is good.

Iowa State: Of any of these bubble winners, Iowa State should be in the best shape. For one, the Cyclones are easily the best team in this group; even a cursory glance at their efficiency numbers (especially when contrasted with the rest of these teams) reveals one of the best offenses in the country and a top-35-ish team overall. I also happen to think the committee will go outside its nitty-gritty sheets and delve into Iowa State's two losses to Kansas, both of which came in overtime, the latter of which was ripped from them thanks to some truly diabolical officiating. Anyway, I wouldn't be able to say any of this had Iowa State lost at West Virginia on Saturday. It didn't, and so I can.

Ole Miss: The Rebels won by 14 at LSU. Were they in better position to start the day -- had they not lost to Mississippi State last week, perhaps -- I might have stuck them down in the "Survivors" category. As it is, they remain in the picture, but have a ton of work to do in the SEC tournament. One win won't get it done.


Arizona State: The Sun Devils are basically done. It's not just a loss at Arizona -- that is obviously forgivable, even if the Wildcats aren't nearly as good as we thought they'd be this season -- it's the four losses in a row (to Washington, UCLA and USC, the latter two of which were on the road, before today's loss at Arizona) as well as an RPI in the 90s, the 283rd-hardest schedule, and so on. Credit Herb Sendek and Jahii Carson for getting this program back in the mix in short order, but it's hard to see an at-large here.

La Salle: The Explorers aren't in bad shape, relatively speaking, and you can hardly fault any team for taking one on the chin at Saint Louis, which they did today. But La Salle has been sort of quietly sliding toward the bubble in the past couple of weeks, and losing 78-54 at this point in the season is hardly the best way to impress the committee. Definitely worth keeping an eye on right now.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma has been in great tournament shape for the majority of the past month -- the Sooners have been playing solid hoops, and their RPI and SOS figures are great -- but it nonetheless entered Saturday outside the comfort of lockdom. And then the Sooners lost to TCU. That probably isn't enough to put Oklahoma below a score of the teams you see here, but when you really dig in to its résumé, there's not much about it that screams "lock." A first-round loss to Iowa State next week could have the Sooners wavering by Selection Sunday.

Colorado: This week's Bubble Watch included a little homily on how the Buffaloes' résumé wasn't all that much different from UCLA's, but Colorado was frequently a No. 10 seed while the Bruins were most often placed on the No. 6 line. That was wrong, I wrote. Naturally, Colorado proceeded to lose at home to Oregon State. Like Oklahoma, the Buffaloes are still in better shape than, say, Baylor, but their regular-season finale was enough to introduce some serious questions going forward.

[+] EnlargeKerron Johnson
AP Photo/Wade PayneAfter forcing OT, Kerron Johnson won the OVC title and an NCAA bid for Belmont by hitting this shot.
Louisiana Tech: Before this week, La. Tech's last loss was at McNeese State all the way back on Dec. 12. This week, the Bulldogs lost two in a row, and whatever slim chance they had of getting an at-large look is now officially gone.

Minnesota: How do you follow up a win against Indiana? If you're Minnesota, you lose at Nebraska and Purdue. I don't really understand how that works, but I don't understand anything about this Gophers team. I don't think Tubby Smith does, either. The good news is Minnesota is still in much better shape than almost anyone on this list, thanks to its batch of top-50 wins and some pretty peerless computer numbers (RPI: 20; SOS: 2). But the Gophers did just finish the Big Ten season at 8-10, and what if they fall in the first round of the Big Ten tournament? You have to at least consider them to be on the bubble right now, right?


Alabama: The Crimson Tide scraped out a three-point home win over Georgia on Saturday. That is the definition of bubble survival: A loss probably would have knocked Anthony Grant's team totally out of the conversation. As it is, it's still a bit of a long shot -- the Tide were Joe Lunardi's last team among the first four out Saturday evening -- with absolutely zero good wins on its docket. Just a totally uninspiring résumé.

Southern Miss: Speaking of totally uninspiring résumés: the Golden Eagles, everyone! To be honest, it sort of baffles me that Southern Miss is even in the conversation; its best wins are at Denver and a sweep of East Carolina. But the Golden Eagles are hanging around the very fringes of the bubble, and Saturday's home victory over UCF preserved that ungainly status.

Iowa: If Iowa doesn't make the tournament -- and right now it looks very much like Iowa is not going to make the tournament -- Fran McCaffery will really only have himself to blame. The Hawkeyes' nonconference schedule was that of a team still in rebuilding mode, looking for some forgiving opponents and early-season wins. It didn't help that Northern Iowa wasn't as good as advertised, but still, the overall nonconference schedule rank of 308 looks like it is going to keep this .500 Big Ten team -- which would normally be a worthy distinction -- from serious bubble consideration, barring a big push in Chicago next week.

Cincinnati: What if Cincinnati had lost to South Florida on Saturday? That would have been the Bearcats' seventh loss in their past nine games, would have put them at 8-10 in Big East play and, worst of all, would have been a loss to South Florida, which has been just flat-out bad all season long. Fortunately, Cincinnati didn't lose to South Florida. Mick Cronin's team held on 61-53 and should be in solid shape moving forward.

Belmont: This sort-of-kind-of doesn't count, because Belmont won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in thrilling fashion Saturday, and its Dance status is now of the automatic variety. But had they lost, it's entirely possible the Bruins would have missed the tournament altogether.


Xavier: Two weeks ago, despite the young Musketeers' growing pains, it was impossible to look at Xavier's schedule and not have your saliva glands start working a little overdrive. Chris Mack's kids would get VCU, Memphis, UMass and Saint Louis all at home, and then they'd finish the season with a trip to Butler. The Cintas Center is a difficult place to play; a 4-1 record was entirely believable, and could have been a season-changing stretch. Instead, Xavier went 2-3 -- it lost at Butler on Saturday 67-62 -- and its tournament credentials look about as so-so as they did back in mid-February. Alas.

Providence: An even bigger long shot than better-than-you-think brothers-in-arms Iowa at this point, at least Providence, which would close the season at Connecticut, had the best chance of notching an impressive road victory on the final weekend of the season. Instead, UConn held on 63-59. Keep an eye on the Friars going forward; like McCaffery at Iowa, Ed Cooley has them playing better basketball than anyone expected this early in his tenure. But a tournament bid will have to wait.

St. John's: After suspending D'Angelo Harrison, sitting Sir'Dominic Pointer for a one-game fighting suspension and losing three in a row, St. John's looked totally cooked coming in to the weekend, both on the bubble and on the court. But the Red Storm didn't roll over. Instead, they gave Marquette a genuine test, forcing guard Vander Blue to make a last-second running layup to win and secure Buzz Williams a share of the Big East title. It was an impressive showing by the Red Storm, albeit one that came up just short. No chance this team gets in the tournament now.

MINNEAPOLIS -- After their fans had stormed the floor Tuesday night and they had answered the media’s questions about Minnesota’s first victory over a No. 1 team in nearly a quarter-century, the Golden Gophers continued their celebration in the locker room.

The chorus of Canadian rapper Drake’s new single, “Started from the Bottom,” pulsated in the team’s hub in the lower level of Williams Arena, where the Gophers had just defeated No. 1 Indiana in a 77-73 upset -- the program's first over a top-ranked opponent since 1989.

“Started from the bottom, now we're here. Started from the bottom, now my whole team here.”

“Here” for Minnesota is a growing sense of assurance that Tubby Smith’s program will reach this year’s NCAA tournament, despite losing eight of 11 games prior to Tuesday’s victory.

The numbers have favored Minnesota all season. The Gophers are ranked in the top 25 of the RPI, BPI and ratings. Per the RPI, the Gophers possess the nation’s No. 1 strength of schedule. They compete in the toughest league in America.

Indiana’s overall success has contributed to the Big Ten's national standing. The Hoosiers didn’t play like the No. 1 team in America in Minneapolis. But road losses have been an issue for every team in the country -- ranked and unranked.

Indiana is still a program that’s equipped to reach Atlanta in early April and win a national title there. After the loss, however, the Hoosiers acknowledged their vulnerability.

“We just need to go to the drawing board, definitely watch film, see what we did wrong and bounce back,” said national player of the year candidate Victor Oladipo, who finished with 16 points.

But the loss could prove to be meaningless. If Indiana, a team that has won four of its past five games, finishes strong and earns a coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Tuesday’s outcome might not matter.

Hoosiers coach Tom Crean didn’t seem overly concerned about the defeat.

“We just missed some opportunities,” he said.

The Gophers can relate.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Mbakwe
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidAn inspired Trevor Mbakwe had 21 points and 12 rebounds, both game highs, in Minnesota's upset.
Although they’d looked like a tournament team on paper, they’d failed to compete like a squad that deserved an at-large bid in recent outings.

Smith was so concerned with the team’s recent slide that he recently hired a sports psychologist to talk to his players.

“We all need somebody to lift us up,” Smith said.

It must have worked. The Gophers (19-9, 7-8 Big Ten) entered the game with a vigor they had lacked in recent matchups.

In the first half, they took control. But then a dominant Trevor Mbakwe went to the bench nearly 10 minutes into the game -- and Indiana launched a 10-0 run in his absence.

Oladipo hit a 3-pointer as Elliott Eliason picked up a foul off the ball with 12 minutes, 38 seconds remaining in the first half. Officials deliberated but ultimately counted the shot, and Indiana retained possession. Jordan Hulls hit a jump shot and a 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions to give Indiana a 20-16 edge. That swing shifted the momentum in the Barn.

Leading scorer Cody Zeller finish the half without a field goal, but the Hoosiers still entered the break with a 34-30 lead. Nearly five minutes into the second half, they pulled out to a 44-36 advantage. Eliason's seven consecutive points, however, tied the game at 46 with 10:51 to go. Over the next four minutes, the Gophers continued to battle and eventually regained the lead, 55-52, with 7:22 to play.

Indiana stayed close until an Andre Hollins’ 3-pointer -- off Will Sheehey's turnover with 3:47 on the game clock -- gave Minnesota a 64-59 edge.

From there, Minnesota extended its lead to seven before Indiana (24-4, 12-3) cut that deficit to three on Hulls’ 3-pointer in the final seconds.

But the Gophers sealed the game with a steal on Indiana’s final inbounds pass.

Minnesota fans flooded the court, where they hugged players and each other in the biggest win in Smith’s tenure.

“It was crazy. It’s definitely a night to remember,” Joe Coleman said. “I don’t think too many college players get to experience something like that. I’ve never felt a heat wave like that before. All the people came in. It just got so hot and crazy.”

Crean’s team had failed to stretch its second-half lead when it had the chance.

And it couldn’t do anything with Mbakwe (21 points, 12 rebounds, a block and a steal). Zeller (2-for-9, 9 points, 7 rebounds), largely due to Mbakwe’s presence, played one of the worst games of his career.

“I love challenges like that. He’s a great player, and I was able to play pretty well,” Mbakwe said. “Obviously, when you see a matchup like that, you want to play your best.”

Added Crean: “That’s a grown man that’s one of the best rebounders in this country, certainly in our league. And he was the toughest guy on the court today.”

Unlike past years, the Gophers might be worry-free on Selection Sunday. But Smith said he doesn’t want his team to become overconfident.

“The emotional part of it, getting too high and too low. ... That’s what happens to you sometimes,” Smith said. “You can have a false sense of accomplishment. I was just more matter-of-fact and said, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta get busy for tomorrow. We’ve got practice tomorrow.’”

Crean could have said the same thing to his team.

Saddle Up: Is Minnesota done?

February, 26, 2013
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is still not feeling great.

No. 1 Indiana at Minnesota, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Every now and then in the past few weeks, folks have asked me whether I still think Minnesota can make the NCAA tournament. And the answer is always, in my best Bane voice: Of course! Have you seen Minnesota's résumé? It has the top strength of schedule in the country, a top-15 nonconference schedule, a top-20 RPI, a higher proportion of top 100 and 150 games than most teams (the Golden Gophers simply didn't play many cupcakes) and no truly bad losses, depending how you feel about a 48-point performance at Northwestern. When you dig in and look at Minnesota and compare it with, say, Temple or Virginia or Baylor or Arizona State -- teams actually on the bubble -- you see how silly it is to wonder whether the Gophers are going to miss out on the NCAA tournament, at least at this point.

It is far more reasonable to ask the following: Is Minnesota done? After last week's blowout losses at Iowa and Ohio State, even if (when) the Gophers get to the tournament, aren't they destined to lose on the first weekend, to ignominiously limp out of this once-promising season? Since the start of the year, Minnesota hasn't actually improved in any way; indeed, since conference play began, it has kept turning the ball over at an alarming rate, kept playing mostly soft defense and kept rebounding its own misses very well -- though not well enough to mask its other deficiencies. It's all pretty rote at this point.

Meanwhile, Tubby Smith's job is undeniably on the line. Smith's Minnesota teams have developed a reputation for collapsing in February, which is accurate: After the loss at Ohio State, the Gophers are 15-28 in February in six seasons under Smith. In some of those seasons, that's been because of injuries or dismissals; this season, the Gophers have no such excuse.

Which is what makes tonight so very interesting. If Minnesota can't get up for the No. 1 team in the country, a team that swamped the Gophers in Bloomington before a second-half comeback gave them a real chance at the upset -- back when Minnesota was a top-10 team, before this latest tailslide -- then Minnesota can't get up for anyone and we might as well consider the Gophers cooked. The burden of proof rests with them.

No. 8 Florida at Tennessee, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

While the Gophers have been trending one way, Tennessee has quietly been heading the other. This happened last year, too. After an otherwise forgettable first two months, the Vols won eight of their last nine and finished 10-6 in SEC play.

It's too early to argue that we're seeing a similar push this season -- the Vols have merely won their past five, over mostly unimpressive opponents -- but after a season spent grinding it out on the offensive end, Tennessee is suddenly scoring with abandon: 88 points in 65 possessions against Kentucky, 82 in 63 on LSU, a 93-point four-OT game at Texas A&M.

None of which is Florida, of course. The Gators are still among the nation's best five teams -- you could make the argument they're the nation's second-best team, based on efficiency performance to date -- and it's more than a little bit tough to imagine UT going off against UF's stingy perimeter defense. But when Florida has been beatable this season -- Arizona, Kansas State, Arkansas, Missouri -- it has been beatable on the road, and usually thanks to late spurts. It is not unfathomable to think the Vols could swing this upset; if Arkansas can do it, why can't Tennessee? And if it happens, that late-season tournament push will be official.

Elsewhere: Don't rub your eyes: No. 19 Memphis is indeed taking its show on the road to Xavier on Tuesday night for a little rare, late-February nonconference action. Relative to its usual A-10 dominance, Xavier is in a down year. But that doesn't make the Cintas Center any easier of a road environment, and it doesn't make this chance to see the Tigers perform outside the comfy, mostly incapable confines of Conference USA any less interesting. … Nebraska travels to No. 17 Wisconsin. … Auburn plays at Alabama, which should induce some fun stuff from Charles Barkley on Thursday night. … And did you ever think Towson, which won just one game last season, would lead George Mason by one game in the CAA standings? I did not.

Video: Golden Gophers dancing

February, 15, 2013

Via Minnesota assistant coach Joe Esposito, an inside look at how the Golden Gophers and head coach Tubby Smith celebrated their victory Thursday night over No. 20 Wisconsin.

MINNEAPOLIS – On Thursday night, Rodney Williams grimaced as he held his left shoulder.

With his team facing a deficit in the second half of a 58-53 overtime victory against No. 20 Wisconsin at Williams Arena, the senior tried to ignore the pain of an injury that forced him to miss last Sunday's loss to Illinois.

Williams has nearly exhausted his tomorrows. And his team needs him now.

So when he aggravated the shoulder injury in the second half, he did not put on his warm-ups and tell his coaches he couldn’t go. He just went to the team’s trainer and asked for ibuprofen and a glass of water. A few minutes later, he checked back into the game.

“I just wanted to go out there and fight for my teammates,” said Williams, who sported a cantaloupe-sized ice pack on his left shoulder following the victory.

His teammates channeled the same attitude against the Badgers. Finally, the Gophers played with a hunger they’ve tapped during stretches throughout the season. It’s a resilience they lacked during a period that included six losses in eight games.

After a rough first half Thursday night, the Gophers pushed the pace against a Wisconsin team that’s accustomed to controlling the tempo.

Williams scored on a tip-in, drew a foul and hit the free throw with 14 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in regulation. That sequence tied the game at 33. A pair of Andre Hollins free throws gave Minnesota its first lead, 35-33, on its next possession. A Trevor Mbakwe dunk put the Gophers up after Wisconsin pulled back even.

[+] EnlargeRodney Williams
Marilyn Indahl/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota's Rodney Williams, sore shoulder and all, slams home a pair of his 10 points.
But the Badgers, up 49-47 late, regained the edge and nearly sealed the game in the final seconds of regulation after Mike Bruesewitz drew an offensive foul on Austin Hollins with 22 seconds to go. On the next play, however, Bruesewitz committed a turnover on the inbounds.

Sophomore Joe Coleman was fouled, and he hit the free throws to tie the game at 49-49 with 17.4 seconds to go.

Yet, the teams' second game nearly ended like their first. In the Jan. 26 meeting in Madison, Traevon Jackson hit the game winner with 4 seconds to play in a 45-44 victory for the Badgers. Jackson had the ball again Thursday on his team’s final possession.

But it was a messy finish that concluded regulation as Jackson’s last-second shot clanked off the backboard.

By then, the Gophers had already recaptured the night. The Badgers failed to record a field goal after Ben Brust’s jumper with 6:18 to play in regulation until Jared Berggren’s layup with 10 seconds remaining in overtime.

“It started on defense,” said Mbakwe. “We got a lot of key stops at the end. We made Wisconsin play our tempo a little bit and that’s kind of hard, especially against a team like that.”

In overtime, Andre Hollins hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 3:40 to go and blew a kiss to the crowd. Mbawke, a 62 percent free throw shooter entering the game, hit a pair on Minnesota’s following possession to give the Gophers a 54-49 lead with 1:32 left. The teams traded free throws down the stretch but the Badgers (17-8, 8-4 Big Ten) couldn’t secure the shots necessary to overcome the Gophers’ late push.

“We just kept being aggressive, kept being aggressive on defense,” Coleman said. “We try to make the least amount of mistakes possible, and I think we really focused in on that at the end of the game … it helped going into overtime. We were playing so aggressive and it helped.”

Hollins led all scorers with 21 points. As a team, the Gophers (eight turnovers) held the Badgers (10-for-17 from the free throw line) to a 30.5 percent shooting clip in arguably their most significant Big Ten matchup of the year.

The pressure has become palpable in Minneapolis.

The Gophers (18-7, 6-6) have fallen in the Big Ten standings and lost their national ranking. Tubby Smith’s job status has been questioned by local media. Earlier this week, the Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan wrote a column titled “If Tubby can’t turn this around, it’s time to get [Shaka] Smart.”

“The sky was falling around here. Sometimes when the sky is falling and you’re lying under the ceiling, you think it’s going to cave in on you,” Smith said after the game. “They wanted it, but we had to have it. That was the key tonight.”

“Desperate” is a term that’s frequently used to describe the condition of any college basketball team that’s struggling in mid-February.

The bubble is big. And the subjective process of a selection committee that consults stats, standings, RPI figures and overall resumes to determine the teams that will earn 37 at-large slots on Selection Sunday, fuels paranoia.

Are we in or are we out?

The Gophers seemed desperate entering Thursday's game. But most of their recent losses came in matchups against ranked Big Ten teams. So they maintained a top-20 RPI.

They’re not Illinois or Villanova or Baylor.

But the expectation for 2012-13 is not an at-large bid. The expectation is an at-large bid and a few wins.

Smith has not won an NCAA tournament matchup in his six seasons with the Gophers.

“We don’t listen to too much on the outside,” Mbakwe said. “I know a lot of people were high on us. We [lost] down the stretch and people were like, ‘This is the same old Minnesota team.’”

Winning is the only elixir for that perception.

Thursday’s victory was a good start.

But it certainly won’t cure the pain of a program that’s feigned progress in the past.

Saddle Up: Minnesota is in trouble

February, 14, 2013
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

No. 20 Wisconsin at Minnesota, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: At some point tonight, Bo Ryan will scream at an official in response to a call he doesn’t like. At some point tonight, Minnesota fans will probably yell something that rhymes with “Duck the Badgers!” Why? Because these two teams don’t like one another. And this is what happens when Wisconsin travels to the Barn. But I’m not sure the stakes have ever been higher for Gophers coach Tubby Smith in a Wisconsin-Minnesota matchup. His program is struggling. There’s a very negative vibe about his job status swirling around the Twin Cities. This is a legitimate must-win situation for the Gophers (17-7, 5-6 Big Ten), who have lost six of their past eight games. Wisconsin, however, is climbing. The Badgers have won four of their past five and re-entered the Big Ten title conversation. The champion of the Big Ten could end the season with three or four conference losses, so Wisconsin (17-7, 8-3) doesn't have much room for error. It’s essentially also a must-win for a Badgers team that still has to face Ohio State and Michigan State before the end of the regular season.

St. John’s at No. 12 Louisville, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Anything could happen in this matchup, right, with two teams that are often unpredictable? St. John’s will be facing the Cardinals without coach Steve Lavin, who lost his father, Albert “Cap” Lavin, last weekend. The Red Storm are coming off Sunday's lopsided 77-58 loss at Syracuse. And every night, St. John’s (15-9, 7-5 Big East) is fighting for its NCAA tournament future. This is a team on the bubble. A win against Louisville could pay big dividends on Selection Sunday. But Lavin’s squad tends to excel only in spurts. There’s nothing sexy about this Red Storm program based on the numbers alone. It is, however, an athletic, talented crew that can contend with the Big East’s best. Chris Obekpa is the top shot-blocker in the country (4.3 bpg).

But Louisville is one of the worst matchups for this young group. The Cardinals are first in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They’re experienced at every position, but they don’t always play like the more mature group. Take Saturday, for example. A team that should have finished off Notre Dame instead suffered a five-overtime loss. It was thrilling for fans, but the truth is Louisville should have won in regulation. The drama was unnecessary. But the drama -- as Louisville fans know all too well -- was not that foreign for Russ Smith and Co.

No. 5 Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2: This is the only team that can stand in Gonzaga’s way. In the West Coast Conference, it’s Gonzaga ... and everyone else. Maybe. The Gaels put up a fight in the first matchup between the teams (an 83-78 loss for Saint Mary’s on Jan. 10) even though Matthew Dellavedova went 4-for-15 from the field. They haven't lost since, winning nine straight. They’re ranked fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. Gonzaga, however, is ranked fourth. This is a battle between a pair of offensive powers, and this is a true rivalry. Saint Mary’s earned both the conference and postseason tourney titles last season. If the Zags win tonight, then they’ll likely regain the WCC crown. But it will not be easy. There's too much on the line in this rivalry matchup.

Elsewhere: No. 9 Arizona at Colorado features a Buffaloes squad that has won five out of six. Arizona has not been invincible. The Wildcats suffered a 77-69 loss to Cal on Sunday that created more uncertainty about Arizona’s status in the Pac-12. The loss makes UCLA-Cal more interesting, too. Does any team want to win this league? If so, please stand up.