February is a historically bad month for head coach Tubby Smith and the Gophers men’s basketball team.
No. 23 Minnesota will host Iowa on Sunday to kick off one of Smith’s most critical stretches as the Gophers’ head coach.
A decisive win against Nebraska on Tuesday helped simmer talks of another midseason collapse, but it doesn’t erase the Gophers’ 2-13 record during their past two February stretches.
Smith has had a winning record only once with Minnesota in the month leading up to the postseason.
On Jan. 9, Minnesota was ranked in the top 10 of the country and boasted a 15-1 record, backing up what many thought was Smith’s best team in his six-year Gophers tenure.
Four straight losses later, the Gophers needed just one win to return to the accelerated form they had held three weeks earlier.
“We played our game more [Tuesday],” junior Austin Hollins said. “We were laid back, but we still played hard.”
The Gophers opened up the floor, using their athleticism to physically dominate the Cornhuskers.
Smith stripped the offense down to the basics, leaving sophomore point guard Andre Hollins with less to facilitate and letting Rodney Williams attack the rim on many possessions.
Smith said Williams’ aggressive play takes a lot of pressure off Hollins.
“[Andre] knew what we were running, didn’t have to call a bunch of plays,” Smith said.
The Gophers looked mentally fresher Tuesday after four losses that Smith attributed to mental mistakes.
“Our psyche had been shaken pretty bad,” Smith said. “I thought we had shot ourselves in the foot in just about every loss we had.”
Minnesota, which averages 14 turnovers, has averaged 7.5 in its past two games.
Williams said turnovers were one of the main culprits during Minnesota’s four-game skid.
“Taking care of the ball is key for us,” Williams said. “You can see what it did for us [in beating Nebraska].”
The Gophers and Hawkeyes are two of the Big Ten’s best at rebounding and getting to the free-throw line.
In Minnesota’s two road losses at Northwestern and Wisconsin, the Gophers combined for 29 free-throw attempts. They attempted 23 free throws during Tuesday’s win.
Austin Hollins said free-throw attempts help Minnesota on defense, as they stifle any fast-break opportunities for their opponents.
“It really helps when we’re trying to press,” Hollins said. “We can set up on our press [after free throws] and pressure them full court.”
But Smith said Minnesota’s fluid, up-tempo offense won’t work against everybody, and it’s on a game-by-game basis.
Minnesota starts a string of seven February games in which its opponents have a .635 conference winning percentage.
The Gophers’ past five Big Ten opponents currently hold a .571 mark in the conference. Minnesota went 1-4 against those opponents.
“Everybody scouts everybody to try and take things away from you,” Smith said. “We’ll still run our [plays], but it depends on the competition.”