MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota can no longer blame injuries and defections for the Golden Gophers' sudden issues.
Blaming the competition doesn't fly, either.
Minnesota probably shouldn't win at Indiana (Wisconsin did) or beat Michigan at home (Ohio State did). But the Gophers are no longer the Gophers from the past two seasons, when issues dogged the team.
Yet, the convincing Jan. 9 victory at Illinois was followed up by flops in the first halves at Indiana and then again Thursday against Michigan. The Gophers had chances to come back in both games, playing to their strengths by getting rebounds, spreading the floor, causing turnovers and making shots.
But it was too late in both games and now, after the 83-75 loss to the No. 5 Wolverines, the Gophers are 3-2 in the Big Ten and looking up at not just Michigan and Indiana, but also Michigan State, Ohio State and 4-0 Wisconsin.
"I'm disappointed," said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith. "Usually we respond much better. I don't know what happened."
The ninth-ranked Gophers dug themselves a huge hole against the Wolverines, much as they did against the Hoosiers. Turnovers dogged Minnesota early and often; so, too, did missed free throws. Oh, and the inability to even cover Tim Hardaway Jr., let alone Trey Burke -- arguably one of the best backcourts in the country -- led to a 19-point deficit at one point.
"We can't be digging these holes like we do," said Minnesota's Rodney Williams, who fouled out after scoring 11 points. "We can't be out there and not be on the same page."
Williams said Hardaway made tough shots in the first half, and that Austin Hollins did a good job contesting them. But over the course of the game, the Gophers couldn't stand in front of Burke or Hardaway, unlike Ohio State on Sunday. There was no Aaron Craft defending Burke, and certainly no one face-guarding Hardaway as well as possible.
Hardaway finished with 21 points; Burke had 18 points, 9 assists and just 1 turnover. Burke played 36 minutes -- and would have played more had he not ripped his shirt. The Gophers committed 15 turnovers and many turned into Wolverines points -- the most embarrassing of which Glenn Robinson III finished off with a 360-degree dunk.
"We're turning the ball over too much," said Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe. "They scored 22 points off turnovers. We got off to a slow start and it killed the momentum [from the second-half comeback at Indiana]. We've got to figure out a way to take care of the ball."
Look, the Gophers have lost only to elite teams -- to Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis and now to Indiana in Bloomington and Michigan at home. If those are the worst losses the Gophers suffer, they'll be just fine. But there are concerns in the way the Gophers suffered the two most recent defeats.
This team still can contend. But the players cannot point fingers, get frustrated or get out of sync too often.
"We know the winner of the Big Ten is going to have two or three losses," said Mbakwe. "It's too early. You've got to take care of your home game and win all of your home games. Everyone has a loss in the Big Ten except Wisconsin. Hopefully, when we go there next week [after a road game at Northwestern] we can hand them a loss. We still believe we have a chance to win the Big Ten."