MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Minnesota has developed a troubling pattern since hiring coach Tubby Smith: a midseason slide.
The Gophers are counting on a return home this week - starting Tuesday night against Nebraska - to help restore their rhythm and turn the current four-game losing streak into an aberration rather than a trend.
"It's mostly mental. We have to just keep having faith," center Trevor Mbakwe said. "We all still believe we're one of the best teams in the country. Now we've just got to go out and play that way."
In six years with Smith, Minnesota has lost only eight nonconference games. Regardless of the quality of those early victories, the Gophers have always taken plenty of confidence and momentum into Big Ten play.
But whether the cause was injuries to irreplaceable players, disruptive off-the-court issues or simply tougher competition that exposed some flaws, they have always faded - be it in mid-January, early February or a late skid into tournament time in March.
The Gophers (15-5, 3-4) reached as high as eighth in The Associated Press poll, but they tumbled from 12th all the way to 23rd in the latest rankings released Monday after losing on the road last week to Northwestern and Wisconsin.
"Nobody likes to lose, but it happens. That's part of sports. We've got to fight through it as a team," swingman Austin Hollins said.
They had myriad chances to win both times, but a two-game total of 92 points and a pattern of untimely fast-break-squelching turnovers led to defeats against the Wildcats and Badgers.
One of their problems has been a lack of production from the reserves, but in the last two games starters Joe Coleman, Hollins and Rodney Williams combined for 27 points and together shot 9 for 44 (20.4 percent) from the field.
"I've got to be more aggressive, more vocal. It didn't help that I wasn't hitting any shots," Hollins said. "I thought I did a decent job on defense, but at the same time that can always get better."
Williams had a breakthrough season as a junior, but since Big Ten play began the kind of passive offense and inconsistent scoring that hampered him his first two years has returned to the court. He's one of the most athletic players in the country, but at power forward he's thinner than most of his opponents and has been getting bumped around. The Gophers tried moving him to the wing, where he played as a freshman and sophomore, some against Wisconsin.
"We know that he's a great player. People go through slumps like that. Unfortunately he's gone through a little slump, but I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow he goes for 15 or 20 points," Mbakwe said. "He's a competitor. I know he's been taking a lot of criticism. It's not all Rodney."
Williams was unavailable to reporters after practice on Monday.
"Something's getting him off his game. That's one thing that always concerns me, just staying mentally focused and not letting one play affect you in another couple of plays," Smith said. "I just think he needs to be more active going to the glass and creating more opportunities."
Minnesota hosts Nebraska (11-10, 2-6) on Tuesday and Iowa on Sunday, and after a tough trip to Michigan State returns to Williams Arena for games against Illinois and Wisconsin. While the goal of a Big Ten title might be all but gone, plenty of time remains for the Gophers to re-establish themselves as one of the best in this stacked-as-ever conference and get in position for that elusive NCAA tournament win under Smith.
Smith has been sharply critical of his players after several of these recent losses, but this week his tone has been more upbeat.
"Our job as a coaching staff is to tell 'em we love 'em, tell 'em how good they are and how much better they can be," Smith said.
He added: "I still have a lot of confidence in them, if you're asking that question. We still haven't peaked yet. We have a lot of basketball left to play."
They should have a good opportunity to bounce back against the Cornhuskers, who have lost five of their last six on the road, with the only victory coming at Big Ten-worst Penn State. They have dropped all four games against ranked opponents this season by an average of 18.2 points.
The Gophers won both meetings in Nebraska's inaugural Big Ten campaign last season, shooting 54 percent or better each time. Williams had 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting in an 81-69 home victory March 3.
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