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As schedule toughens, Gophers can’t let brief skid turn into a long slide

When Ben Johnson was a Gophers player, he knew certain college basketball opponents — perennial powers such as Michigan State and Duke — were considerably more dangerous coming off a loss.

"We'd always joke that if you got Michigan State after it lost at Breslin [Center], good luck," Johnson said. "You could say that about Duke when Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] was there. It would be comical."

Coming off back-to-back losses to Indiana and Iowa in conference play, the Gophers (12-5, 3-3 Big Ten) are hoping to bring that same mentality to play their best basketball going into the toughest stretch so far this season.

Starting Thursday at Michigan State, Johnson's team plays five of the next seven games against teams ranked in the top 50 of the NCAA's NET rankings used during the NCAA tournament selection process.

In other words, the Gophers have five opportunities for a Quad 1 victory, the best wins for their résumé. They're 0-2 in those games so far this season: a neutral site loss vs. San Francisco and a road loss at Ohio State.

The U's upcoming seven-game stretch includes playing Michigan State twice, Iowa again (after losing to the Hawkeyes 86-77 Monday at home), Wisconsin at home and Purdue on the road. Ouch.

In other years this could turn into a lengthy losing streak for the Gophers. Last season, they dropped 12 consecutive games from mid-January to late February, including six road losses.

"If you see what we went through last year, we've been through a lot," forward Joshua Ola-Joseph said. "We want to win. We're desperate to win. Everybody has the same goal here: Just staying focused and trying to come [together]. That's how we overcome adversity."

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Johnson hopes this team is better equipped than last year to handle the Big Ten gantlet. With a recent seven-game win streak — including three in conference play — the Gophers displayed a new and improved backcourt and depth inside. They developed an identity to play faster, but some areas were a work in progress.

Part of that winning identity was quality ball movement and shot selection, limiting turnovers, defending even during poor shooting stretches and making plays on both ends down the stretch. Those things helped the Gophers win at Michigan and erase double-digit deficits to beat Nebraska and Maryland at home.

"We're still in a process with this crew, figuring how to win and be consistent," Johnson said. "There's winning and there's being consistent. When you're consistent, you have to have consistent habits, whether it's going good or bad for you or the team."

Beyond building consistency, the Gophers simply need to play better, especially offensively. They've shot only 19% from three-point range (14-for-72) in the past three games, including 5-for-29 in Monday's loss against Iowa.

There arguably wasn't a backcourt playing better than Elijah Hawkins and Mike Mitchell Jr. last month. Hawkins scored and set school assist records (17 dimes vs. IUPUI). Mitchell shot the lights out from three-point range (67% over three consecutive games). The script flipped lately, however, on that efficiency.

Mitchell has scored nine points — including 1-for-10 shooting from behind the arc — in his past three games. Hawkins still leads the nation with 7.8 assists per game, but he scored only six points combined on 2-for-16 shooting in losses to Indiana and Iowa, going 1-for-12 on threes.

Fortunately for the Gophers, Dawson Garcia appears back to his old self since returning from an ankle injury in late December. The 6-11 junior forward had 19 of his 30 points in the second half vs. the Hawkeyes. Freshman guard Cam Christie also had 10 of his 12 points in the second half Monday.

Maybe the most disappointing aspect was the way the Gophers fell apart defensively, prompting a blistering talk from assistant Dave Thorson during the game.

Johnson focused a recent practice film session entirely on the second half (allowed Iowa to shoot 60%). But two of his best defenders, Hawkins (two steals per game) and big man Pharrel Payne (nearly two blocks per game) were not healthy.

Hawkins sprained his ankle and could barely walk after the Iowa loss. Payne was dealing with back issues that limited him to 14 minutes. They're both game-time decisions, but Johnson said Payne's availability is tougher to gauge after missing recent practices.

If the Gophers are going to secur a statement victory at Michigan State on Thursday, they will likely need all hands on deck.

"If Pharrel is playing 25-30 minutes, I like our defensive chances," Johnson said. "Getting the rebound or defending the post. Just having his physicality out there. We've got to get him back feeling healthy."