Gophers can't dig themselves out of hole

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tubby Smith still has a shot at an 18th consecutive 20-win season.

But if he gets those final three victories, they’ll come in the NIT. At best. And that’s certainly not what Minnesota had in mind when this season began.

The Golden Gophers started the season just outside the Top 25 and were generally considered the fifth-best team in a stacked Big Ten. Instead they’ve stumbled to a 17-14 record and a ninth-place finish in the 11-team league.

The Golden Gophers were dumped from the Big Ten tournament Thursday afternoon by Northwestern, 75-65. Minnesota looked like a team that was out of answers and out of fight in the second half against the Wildcats.

When Northwestern went on an 8-0 run to take a six-point lead midway through the second half, Minnesota was done. There was no significant response, no rally -- just playing out of the string in a season gone wrong.

“It’s just been a tough stretch,” Smith said.

How tough? Try 10 losses in the past 11 games. It didn’t help when double-digit scorer Devoe Joseph transferred in January, but when point guard Al Nolen went down with a broken foot, he took Minnesota’s season with him.

“You've got to have leadership and you've got to have guards that can help you get in the offense or bring the ball back out when you have to get it set up, and we just haven't had that,” Smith said.

But as much as the loss of Nolen has taxed Minnesota’s offense, it’s bore only scant resemblance to most Smith-coached defensive teams against Northwestern. The Wildcats scored the most points the Gophers have allowed in a month, and the second-most they have allowed against a Big Ten opponent all season (Ohio State went for 82).

Northwestern got 3s when it wanted 3s and got drives when it wanted drives, as guard Michael Thompson lit up the Gophers for a Big Ten tourney-record 35 points. That doesn’t happen against a Tubby team.

Now the question is whether or not Minnesota will still be a Tubby team in 2011-12.

There have been rumors of Smith being a candidate at Georgia Tech if Paul Hewitt leaves or is fired -- Smith had great success in the state in the mid-'90s at Georgia, so he’d be an attractive name. But Minnesota is working on an extension for Smith, and the coach at least talked a good game Thursday about wanting to stay with the school.

“It certainly makes me feel good that the university believes in me and believes in what we're doing and believes in the type of people that we're getting in the program, that they are doing the right things, graduating," he said.

“Certainly I'm excited about the future. I'm looking forward to being at the ‘U’ for some time, and hopefully this season or this stretch of bad losses doesn't cause them to pull anything off the table.”