Souhan: Big Ten is dealing Gophers a hard dose of reality

Star Tribune/TNS
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Iowa coach Fran McCaffery called his counterpart "masterful."

Jamison Battle and E.J. Stephens spoke proudly of the Gophers' grit.

Roars filled the Barn during a stirring second-half comeback.

Had there not been a scoreboard handy, you might not have noticed that Iowa defeated Minnesota 81-71 at Williams Arena on Sunday, running the Gophers' losing streak to four games, with only one of those losses coming by fewer than 10 points.

The difference between the way the principals spoke about the Gophers and the way the Gophers' season has detoured in the last three weeks is an acknowledgement that early-season optimism was probably overblown to begin with.

The Gophers scripted the sweetest possible college basketball story, that of a former player returning home, building a team of underrated transfers and getting off to an unimaginably fast start.

Ben Johnson won 10 of his first 11 games as a college coach, including one at Michigan. His team played with poise and maximized its talent, and Battle and Payton Willis performed like stars.

The fear all along for this team was that the combination of Johnson's inexperience, a lack of raw talent and a lack of depth would keep it from surviving the Big Ten schedule, which requires durability, health and stamina for even the most talented teams.

"This league is brutal," McCaffery said.

For all of the nonconference promise and that notable victory at Michigan, the Gophers have become who we thought they were — likable and limited.

They are 1-5 in the Big Ten.

Their lack of depth has thwarted them in league play.

They have hit the wall, and on Sunday the bricks were painted gold and black.

With veteran center Eric Curry out because of a sprained ankle, the Gophers did well to challenge Iowa down the stretch. Freshman Treyton Thompson produced eight points and two rebounds in 11 minutes, finishing with a team-best plus-11 rating in his first significant college action.

With his team trailing by 20 or more in the second half, Johnson urged his players to look for an Iowa lull that would allow them to rally, and rally they did, with Battle hitting a three-pointer to cut Iowa's lead to 74-71 with 1:25 remaining.

"We just kept talking about, in timeouts, that there was going to be a chance to have a run that was going to allow us to get back in," Johnson said. "My point was, what are we going to do when that presents itself?"

They fought back, but when you have to fight back from a big deficit in every game, most of your victories are going to fall into the "moral" category.

The Gophers are 1-5 in the Big Ten — and may be overachieving. Whether you consider that a compliment or an insult probably depends on whether you kept your expectations in check.

Their only Big Ten victory came against a Michigan team that is just 1-3 in the conference and 7-7 overall.

This isn't a crisis so much as a creeping reality.

Want to blame someone for this disappointing stretch of games? Blame the media. We love a good story, and we love low-ego, overachieving coaches, and we'd love to see the Barn filled for big games all winter.

We may have been a bit exuberant in our praise of this team, because this team was such a pleasant surprise.

The praise wasn't necessarily wrong — it just may need to be placed on ice until Johnson can spend more than one rushed, COVID-infested offseason recruiting. And he had an impressive number of top recruits in attendance at Williams Arena on Sunday.

The Gophers' next five games are at Penn State, home against Rutgers, home against No. 16 Ohio State, at No. 13 Wisconsin and home against No. 7 Purdue.

This could get ugly, but the fundamentals of the sweet story are still in place. This remains an endearing combination of earnest coaches and ambitious players, and when fully healthy they could pull another upset or two.

As for the notion that this was going to be an NCAA tournament team, you have permission to blame anyone who let the an endearing story line obscure the Gophers' reality.

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