January 9, 2013 at 1:00 am

Matt Charboneau

Minnesota's promising start has Tubby bubbly

He's won more than 500 games and has a national championship on his resume, but to say Tubby Smith's time at Minnesota has been difficult would be an understatement.

Smith arrived in Minneapolis in 2007 and hasn't exactly had it easy. Between injuries and player defections, he has been unable to get the Gophers to be a consistent contender in the Big Ten.

This year, it appears all those things are changing.

The Gophers are ranked No. 8 in the nation, have lost just once all season and — knock on wood — are healthy.

It has Smith walking around with almost a permanent smile.

"It's human nature," Smith said. "Everybody wants to hear good news and things are going well."

While Andre Hollins has been outstanding, a healthy Trevor Mbakwe is making a big difference for the Gophers.

Last season, he had four double-doubles in nonconference play before tearing the ACL in his right knee in late November against Dayton. He's back for one more season and has been a force inside, averaging 8.7 points and 7.7 rebounds, good for third in the Big Ten.

The result is a balanced attack. Minnesota opened Big Ten play with a win over Michigan State, ending a five-game home losing streak to the Spartans, and capped off the first week with a blowout win over Northwestern.

Combine that with some solid nonconference wins, including one over No. 19 Memphis, and the Gophers are about as confident as a team can be heading into the teeth of the Big Ten schedule.

Smith is happy his team, for once, isn't worried about anything but what's happening on the court.

"Anytime you have a major injury or something happens to your team that can deflate them you hope your team rallies," he said. "But it's sports. When you're winning, momentum, attitude, disposition, all human traits come to bear. Therefore, we're a happier bunch of guys, a happier coaching staff when we're healthy and have all the pieces."

If there are any doubters left, Minnesota will quickly get a shot to silence any stragglers.

Its next three games might be the toughest stretch of the season. Minnesota goes on the road to play No. 12 Illinois tonight followed by a trip to No. 5 Indiana on Saturday.

The Gophers cap off the brutal run with a home game on Jan. 17 against No. 2 Michigan.

If the Gophers come away from that stretch in good shape, they could be in position to win their first Big Ten title since 1982 after vacating their 1997 crown because of NCAA sanctions.

"I don't think anyone is saying they want to finish second," Smith said. "We expect to compete for the Big Ten championship and certainly think we have the players capable to do it."

Northwestern hurting

For the past few seasons, Northwestern has come agonizingly close to finally ending its NCAA Tournament drought.

And though reaching the Big Dance was going to be a tall task this season, things have hardly gone the Wildcats' way.

Junior guard JerShon Cobb was suspended for the season for academic reasons and just a couple of weeks ago, senior Drew Crawford was lost to a torn labrum in his shoulder. That's 23 points a game from last year's team that have disappeared.

"We're having a hard time putting the ball in the basket," coach Bill Carmody said."It's been a rough patch for us."

The Wildcats are 10th in the conference in scoring, averaging 66.5 points a game. But in a 69-51 loss to Minnesota, they managed only 14 first-half points.

It was the culmination of a week that started with a 94-66 thrashing at the hands of Michigan.

"We had a tough week," Carmody said. "We're just trying to figure out how to play a little bit. The last two years we went up and down the court and pretty much took the first available quality shot.

"We've lost some guys that helped that strategy and now we're trying to figure out how to win games."

Far afield

Wisconsin has never been an offensive juggernaut, especially during Bo Ryan 's tenure.

But even he had to cringe at the Badgers' 47-41 victory at Nebraska on Sunday. Neither team was even 40 percent from the field and both were worse from 3-point range.

In addition, Wisconsin was a brutal 3-for-13 from the free-throw line.

Ryan joked he and Nebraska coach Tim Miles talked about playing a game of horse to show their teams how to shoot.

He thinks his team is struggling a bit mentally.

However, he feels the perimeter game is just fine.

"We've had a few games we shot a real high percentage from three," Ryan said. "It's about believing the next one is gonna go in. Most of our guys taking threes are younger players that don't have the experience in the Big Ten like we had the past few seasons.

"It's not an excuse for the low percentage, but if we could get a couple of games where we knock some down and guys believe, I think it can turn around."

mcharboneau@detnews.com

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Minnesota coach Tubby Smith finally has reason to smile as his Gophers (14-1) are ranked No. 8 in the nation. / Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
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