Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 2/15/12
MINNEAPOLIS Moral victories don't get college basketball teams into the NCAA Tournament. Come March, the thought of "what if" doesn't do schools any good. Yet that's where the Minnesota Golden Gophers stand after yet another home loss that had them wondering what could have been. On Tuesday, the Gophers fell to No. 6 Ohio State by a 78-68 final. The Buckeyes were clearly the more talented team, but a 20-0 OSU run in the first half all but buried the Gophers and had Minnesota understandably frustrated following the loss. "It was just that 20-0 run that killed us," said junior forward Rodney Williams. Well, not just that. But the first-half dry spell continued a trend for Minnesota that started against Wisconsin five days earlier. With the visiting Badgers in town, the Gophers fell behind big early. While Minnesota rallied to send the game to overtime, Tubby Smith's squad had nothing left in the tank after regulation and fell 68-61 to Wisconsin. Again Tuesday, Minnesota tried to claw its way back but never drew closer than eight points after trailing by as many as 21. Another opportunity for a much-needed signature win was washed away in the early stages of the game. "I know we can be better than this, and that's what's disappointing," Smith said. "But the key is you can't get behind like that and expect to (come back). The same thing against Wisconsin. If you get behind, it's an uphill battle. It's a lot more pressure on you to get it done. We've just gotten off to poor starts for some reason." Tuesday's loss dropped Minnesota to 17-9 overall. More importantly, the Gophers are now just 5-8 in the Big Ten with five conference games remaining. They'll likely have a few more chances to knock off a ranked team to earn that elusive signature win, as they host No. 8 Michigan State and No. 20 Indiana and face No. 17 Wisconsin on the road. But Saturday's game against unranked Northwestern might be just as important for Minnesota's tournament chances. The Gophers sit just behind the Wildcats another tournament bubble team in the Big Ten standings, although Northwestern will play Indiana on Wednesday night before hosting Minnesota. The Gophers' biggest win of the season, a 77-74 upset of then-No. 8 Indiana, came on the road. They also earned road wins against Penn State and Nebraska, while playing close against Illinois and Michigan on the road earlier in the Big Ten season. Minnesota is 2-4 in conference play at Williams Arena and 3-4 away from the Barn. After Tuesday's loss to OSU, Smith was asked if he was encouraged by how his team has played on the road this season. "No, not after this performance," he said. "I don't care where we play. If we play like this, we're going to get beat." If the Gophers get beat too many more times, their NCAA Tournament dreams will fade away in the process. They still need three more wins to reach the 20-victory mark. To finish above .500 in the Big Ten, Minnesota would need to win out in its last five games. Winning four of five would put the Gophers right at .500 in the conference. The old saying in sports is that a team's next game is its most important one. It sounds obvious enough, but in the Gophers' case it's more than just a clich. "The Northwestern game, that's definitely going to be a big game for us after losing two in a row at home," Williams said. "Any win will help. I think a road win will help even more for us." Minnesota has beaten Northwestern once already this year for one of its two Big Ten home victories. To beat the Wildcats on the road, the Gophers will have to put a stop to their recent trend of slow starts. If they can't, they'll again be left to ponder what could have been. "We're more focused on our losses. The road wins are good and all that, but it really doesn't matter if you play home or away," said guard Julian Welch. "You've just got to come out from the start. We're having trouble with that. We've got to figure out a way."
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