Mar 14, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Tracy Abrams (left) chases after a loose ball with Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Andre Hollins (right) in the second half during the first round of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center. Illinois won 51-49. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Gopher basketball: how many games remain this season?

Mar 14, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Brandon Paul (3) drives against Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Austin Hollins (20) in the second half during the first round of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center. Illinois won 51-49. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

For just the second time in Tubby Smith’s tenure as the Gopher basketball head coach, Minnesota lost its opening round game in the Big Ten Tournament.

Even heading into tip-off as favorites was not enough for Minnesota as mistakes doomed the Gophers as Illinois took the game at the buzzer after Austin Hollins stepped out of bounds on an in-bounds the play before.

Well, at least the Gophers will have more time to practice and think about their latest three game losing streak heading into the NCAA Tournament.

And yes, we’re calling it now — Minnesota will be in the field of 68 for the first time since the 2009-10 season.

Maybe it’s a secret strategy being employed by mastermind Tubby Smith knowing that extra practice at the expense of a Big Ten Tournament was better than playing Indiana in the second round.

Okay, probably not, but limping into the Big Dance was certainly never a part of the agenda and likely never crossed the minds of the Gophers after beating the No. 1 team a few short weeks ago.

In fact, the losing streak coupled by the (near) fact that Minnesota will play in the long-desired NCAA Tournament makes this an incredibly awkward time to be a Golden Gopher.

Even senior leader Trevor Mbakwe vented his frustration, inadvertently or not taking a shot at coach Smith’s decision to bench him and leading scorer Andre Hollins for long stretches of the game.

Mbakwe later fluffed those remarks he made, which initially sounded like a questioning of his coach’s decision, saying through a team spokesman post-interview that he meant to question the foul he picked up that led him to sit.

With a season-elimination game coming up next week to be determined, how will the Gophers respond in the moment?

Mar 14, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Rodney Williams (33) battles for a rebound with Illinois Fighting Illini guard/forward Myke Henry (20) in the second half during the first round of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center. Illinois won 51-49. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The remaining games of Minnesota’s season will be determined by how well the Gophers can shake off the disappointment and heartache that has become the story of the year.

One thing is almost for sure: Rodney Williams and Mbakwe, especially, don’t want their careers to end with an opening round loss in the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota will need the two seniors in the tournament and Thursday’s loss showed what happens to the Gophers when two of their best players are playing below their ability.

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Tags: Basketball Gophers Minnesota Minnesota Golden Gophers Rodney Williams Trevor Mbakwe

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