Tonight: Smith, Gophers look to right ship against rising Hoosiers

Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn't look like the team is bound for glory this season, but Minnesota can still salvage an NCAA birth with a win over Indiana tonight.

It's not a fun time to be a fan of the Minnesota men's basketball team. The squad, which was once thought to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, is fading quickly. Now just a 10-seed in Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology update, the Golden Gophers need to recover from back-to-back embarrassing losses at Ohio State and Iowa.

The good news for Tubby Smith's floundering team is that the last three games on the Big Ten schedule are against Penn State, Nebraska, and Purdue. The bad news is that first Minnesota must play host to an Indiana team that outscored the Gophers 52-29 in the first half back on January 12.

Michael Rand of the Minnesota Star-Tribune this morning listed five things that Minnesota could do to defeat the Hoosiers.

1) Shoot lights-out.

2) Keep the crowd engaged the entire game.

3) Play with confidence.

4) Counter every Indiana burst with a big possession.

5) Finish.

Of course the first thing is the only part that matters. If Minnesota shoots "lights-out," that will keep the crowd engaged, which will in turn fill the players with confidence. That confidence will give the team the ability to continue to shoot well even as the defense allows Indiana to go on a prolonged run. Finally, "finish" really just means shoot well, but also shoot well at the end of the game.

So yes, it would certainly help if Minnesota shoots the ball well tonight, and yes, great shooting (at least from three-point range) is a big part of the reason why Iowa State could've/should've/wouldn've beat Kansas last night, but there's a key difference between that Iowa State team and this Minnesota team.

1) Iowa State is a good team

2) Minnesota is playing like a crap team

Kidding. Well, not really, but here's an actual basketball explanation:

Iowa State is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. It has hit on 37.3 percent of three-point attempts this season, which is the 41st best in the nation. In fact, the Cyclones have improved their shooting as the season has worn on. In Big 12 play, Iowa State is shooting a blistering 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. It also as a freshman big man named Georges Niang who was able to use his three-point shooting ability (36.6 percent for the season) to pull Kansas shot-blocker Jeff Withey away from the basket. Even when Niang wasn't hitting his jumpers, this created a lot of space underneath for Iowa State's guards.

Minnesota is only shooting 33.2 percent from beyond the arc for the season, and more importantly, it lacks a big man who can convince Cody Zeller to leave the paint. Rodney Williams would be that guy, but he's only 8-for-33 on three-point attempts this year. If the Hoosiers play smart defense, they'll just let him have that shot.

The good thing about Minnesota's bigs is that Williams and Trevor Mbakwe are strong and athletic enough to guard Christian Watford and Zeller, respectively. As long as Mbakwe can keep Zeller in check, the Gophers won't have to double down low, and they can concentrate more on perimeter threats like Jordan Hulls and Victor Oladipo.

On offense, the Gophers have struggled mightily from the field in their recent defeats. Instead of trying to shoot "lights-out," they should focus on getting Mbakwe the ball in the post. This could prove difficult, especially if the Hoosiers play zone, but 35 seconds is still a lot of time, and Minnesota doesn't want to get into a track meet with the Hoosiers, anyway.

Once Mbakwe has the ball down low, he needs to get physical with Zeller and force the All-American candidate to play defense. At the very least, this should force Indiana to double-team the big man, which should open up some long-range looks that weren't available before the ball went inside the perimeter.

Besides general bad shooting and lousy play, the other big problem with Minnesota right now is the team's lack of confidence in head coach Tubby Smith. This has been well-documented on this site already, so I'll just say that Smith is in hot water right now. That doesn't mean that Gopher fans should boo him though, says From the Barn.

Tubby Smith, for the time being, is still the coach of the Gophers, and by booing him you are booing the team, unless you have the ability to modulate your voice in such a way that only Tubby can hear you. The Gophers, each and every one of them, are a mentally fragile bunch at the moment. Your chants and your boos aren’t going to make the players believe in themselves, and won’t help them play any better. For all we know the players haven’t quit on their coach, and as bad as they’ve played lately, no one wants to see how badly they would play if and when they do quit on the coach. The situation gets even worse if Tubby does return next season. Angry fans calling for a coach’s head is not the way to keep players committed to the program or to attract the recruits who may one day rescue us from our misery, regardless of the coach.

I agree. I know fans have a right to boo the team, but I was under the impression that most fans wanted their team to win. Well, booing never helps the team win, as we've seen before. So, yeah, you can boo your team. Go knock yourself out. It's only going to make things worse though. If Minnesota fans want their team to have a chance tonight, they need to bring the good kind of noise.

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