MINNEAPOLIS – Good news for Minnesota: The last true road game of the season is this weekend.
The Gophers, who need a win at Purdue on Saturday to get back on track before the Big Ten tournament, have lost seven in a row away from cozy, noisy Williams Arena. The latest slip on a trip came Wednesday at Nebraska in an ugly 53-51 loss. Three of their top five scorers, Rodney Williams, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman, failed to score.
One of the biggest problems that night was foul shooting.
"We make five free throws, and I'm in a different mood," said coach Tubby Smith, who was edgy after practice Friday as he took questions from reporters. "We're all in a different mood."
The Gophers missed 10 of 20 attempts in that game, so there was no secret about what the focus was in the gym this week.
"We came in yesterday early and shot like 100-plus," said sophomore guard Andre Hollins. "That's what it takes to win basketball games, perfecting the little things. That day we didn't perfect our free throws. We didn't match their intensity, I don't think, and we let their crowd get into it. That was a big key."
Rediscovering their rhythm at the line is an important step to take in order to have any success in the postseason. But the offense in general is still enigmatic; for all the athleticism, experience and strength they can put on the court, the Gophers (20-10, 8-9 Big Ten) are as prone to extended stretches of futility with the ball as anyone in the conference.
Especially on the road.
They're averaging less than 53 points over seven consecutive losses away from home since an 84-67 win at then-No. 12 Illinois on Jan. 9. They're averaging almost 69 points overall this season. The type of pack-the-paint, slow-the-pace defense the Huskers play, similar to Wisconsin and Northwestern, has particularly given the Gophers trouble.
"So you're going to have to make shots over the top or you're going to have a tough night," Smith said.
The good news for the Gophers is that this will likely be their last time in an opponent's home gym this season. If they were to miss the NCAA tournament and wind up in the NIT again, well, true road trips would be back on the table. Most analysts have declared them bubble-proof at this point, however, with their high strength-of-schedule rating and five wins over ranked teams at the time, tied for the second most in the nation behind Indiana.
Still, they must figure out how to maintain some composure and confidence for the rest of March if they want to go anywhere in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago next weekend and the NCAA tournament beyond that. That energy they've thrived off at Williams Arena, particularly in those significant wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana, won't be available again until November.
"We still feel we're one of the best. We still believe. Now we just have to go out and consistently play like we did last week," said senior forward Trevor Mbakwe.
The Boilermakers (14-16, 7-10) are coming off a competitive showing in a five-point loss to No. 7 Michigan on Wednesday and a stunning 13-point win at No. 22 Wisconsin last Sunday. So they'll be plenty dangerous, especially on another senior day.
Smith said he'd probably return to the original lineup, after trying Andre Ingram and Julian Welch in the starting five the last two games. Whatever it takes to find a way to win on the road for the first time in two months.
"Sometimes when the crowd gets into it, we don't handle it as well as we should," Hollins said. "But we're a veteran team. We know better than that."
Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP