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With 4 straight losses, Minnesota's in a slump

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With 4 straight losses, Minnesota's in a slump

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Minnesota has developed a troubling pattern since hiring coach Tubby Smith: a midseason slide.

The Gophers are counting on a return home this week to help restore their rhythm and turn the current four-game losing streak into an aberration rather than a trend.

``It's mostly mental. We have to just keep having faith,'' center Trevor Mbakwe said. ``We all still believe we're one of the best teams in the country. Now we've just got to go out and play that way.

In six years with Smith, Minnesota has lost only eight nonconference games. Regardless of the quality of those early victories, the Gophers have always taken plenty of confidence and momentum into Big Ten play.

But whether the cause was injuries to irreplaceable players, disruptive off-the-court issues or simply tougher competition that exposed some flaws, they have always faded - be it in mid-January, early February or a late skid into tournament time in March.

The Gophers reached as high as eighth in The Associated Press poll, but they tumbled from 12th all the way to 23rd in the latest rankings released Monday after losing on the road last week to Northwestern and Wisconsin.

``Nobody likes to lose, but it happens. That's part of sports. We've got to fight through it as a team,'' swingman Austin Hollins said.

They had myriad chances to win both times, but a two-game total of 92 points and a pattern of untimely fast-break-squelching turnovers led to defeats that dropped their record to 15-5 including 3-4 in the conference.

One of their problems has been a lack of production from the reserves, but in the last two games starters Joe Coleman, Hollins and Rodney Williams combined for 27 points and together shot 9 for 39 (23 percent) from the field.

``I've got to be more aggressive, more vocal. It didn't help that I wasn't hitting any shots,'' Hollins said. ``I thought I did a decent job on defense, but at the same time that can always get better.''

Williams had a breakthrough season as a junior, but since Big Ten play began the kind of passive offense and inconsistent scoring that hampered him his first two years has returned to the court. He's one of the most athletic players in the country, but at power forward he's thinner than most of his opponents and has been getting bumped around. The Gophers tried moving him to the wing, where he played as a freshman and sophomore, some against Wisconsin.

``We know that he's a great player. People go through slumps like that. Unfortunately he's gone through a little slump, but I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow he goes for 15 or 20 points,'' Mbakwe said. ``He's a competitor. I know he's been taking a lot of criticism. It's not all Rodney.''

Williams was unavailable to reporters after practice on Monday.

``Something's getting him off his game. That's one thing that always concerns me, just staying mentally focused and not letting one play affect you in another couple of plays,'' Smith said. ``I just think he needs to be more active going to the glass and creating more opportunities.''

Minnesota hosts Nebraska on Tuesday and Iowa on Sunday, and after a tough trip to Michigan State returns to Williams Arena for games against Illinois and Wisconsin. While the goal of a Big Ten title might be all but gone, plenty of time remains for the Gophers to re-establish themselves as one of the best in this stacked-as-ever conference and get in position for that elusive NCAA tournament win under Smith.

Smith has been sharply critical of his players after several of these recent losses, but this week his tone has been more upbeat.

``Our job as a coaching staff is to tell `em we love `em, tell `em how good they are and how much better they can be,'' Smith said.

He added: ``I still have a lot of confidence in them, if you're asking that question. We still haven't peaked yet. We have a lot of basketball left to play. We've got a lot to do. Nobody's happy when we lose. I know I'm not.''

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Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter:http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP

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Isaiah Thomas wants to make it clear that Marcus Smart flops

Isaiah Thomas wants to make it clear that Marcus Smart flops

When you know, you know.

Washington Wizards starting point guard Isaiah Thomas gave his take on former teammate Marcus Smart's reputation for flopping. Spoilers: he flops.

Thomas, who is returning to Boston on Wednesday for the first time as a starter, was teammates with Smart during his run with the Celtics from 2014-17. He didn't hold back from interrupting reporters to make sure everyone knows that Smart flops. (See the entire sequence play out in the video above.)

Despite being familiar with Smart, don't expect Thomas to know everything about how the Celtics will prepare for the Wizards. Thomas pointed out that only two of his former teammates are still with the team.

His history with Boston means a lot to Thomas, but his only focus on Wednesday will be earning the victory.

"The love is genuine between me and the city," Thomas said. "Hopefully we can just win the game. That's the most important." 

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Lamar Jackson’s play this season has begun to make some analysts and fans backtrack 

Lamar Jackson’s play this season has begun to make some analysts and fans backtrack 

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson is starting to make people reconsider what they think of him. 

After the Ravens’ 49-13 win over the Bengals on Sunday, the rest of the NFL is starting to take notice about Lamar Jackson’s status in the NFL. Especially considering his spin move through the Bengals defense.

Hall of Fame NFL general manager Bill Polian recently admitted that he was wrong when he said that Jackson should be an NFL wide receiver during his draft process in 2018.

“I was wrong, because I used the old, traditional quarterback standard with him, which is clearly why John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome were more prescient than I was,” Polian told USA TODAY Sports. 

Jackson is currently building an MVP case for himself and is on-pace for over 30 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards of total offense. 

It’s a nice change of pace for the 22-year-old quarterback in his second year as a pro. Jackson had to face heavy criticism after he left Louisville for a variety of reasons headed into the draft. Even after he took over as the Ravens quarterback, those evaluations persisted. 

“We always knew what he was about,” Ravens center Matt Skura said. “We always knew his ability to make plays and all that stuff. I think it’s just people right now seeing it on a much larger scale and it’s just getting the attention now.”

At this point, however, it’s clear that not only is Jackson a quarterback, he might even be the MVP of the league.

Of the five quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the 2018 Draft, only four are starting and just two have led their teams to a winning record. Jackson leads all of his draft counterparts in total yards and total touchdowns. 

But as anyone in the Ravens’ locker room will say, the accolades don’t concern Jackson — only the record does.

“I think he’s more concerned with winning than anything,” Orlando Brown Jr. said. “As individuals, we’ve all got people to prove wrong and things that we used to put a chip on our shoulder. At the end of the day, I know he’s more concerned with winning more than anything.”

Still, it’s noteworthy that it only took Jackson a complete season of starts, through two partial seasons, to begin the backtracking across the NFL landscape.

“If you watch ESPN or you watch TV, it’s going to come up no matter what,” Skura said. “Even on your Instagram feed it’s going to come up. I think for a lot of us, just in one ear and out the other as far as people pumping us up. You’ve kind of got to stay level-headed and ride the rollercoaster, so to say.”

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