MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- When Minnesota lost star Trevor Mbakwe for the season, skepticism from fans and analysts abounded about the Gophers and their ability to stay in the Big Ten race.
When they started conference play with four straight losses, they were given even less of a chance to catch up and get in position for an NCAA tournament bid.
But for all their flaws, these Gophers have shown undeniable determination and confidence, qualities that coach Tubby Smith's previous teams here were mostly lacking in the closing minutes. They've won four of their last five games to reach the halfway point in the Big Ten schedule at 4-5 and 16-6 overall.
Smith was asked Tuesday what he believes the identity of this squad is. After pausing briefly and talking in circles for a bit, he came up with his answer.
"I'd like for that to be our M.O. -- that these guys are never out of it," Smith said.
They had to endure some tough lessons first to get to the reward, losing close games on the road to Illinois and Michigan and another one at home to Iowa. They hung on for a season-changing win at Indiana and Saturday staged a whirlwind rally to force overtime and beat Illinois.
What's notable about the formula for this team's success so far is that the clutch contributions have primarily come from freshmen and sophomores. Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin and Andre Hollins have provided their share of important points, rebounds, passes and steals. They've demonstrated a resolve that seemingly transcends their years of eligibility.
"Just understanding the journey and appreciating each moment they have to get better," Smith said, when asked where he thinks the source of the poise comes from.
Austin Hollins, the lanky sophomore who has been playing the small forward spot in Minnesota's starting lineup, has been up and down. Smith challenged him after he failed to record a rebound in the loss at Michigan. The next game, against Iowa, he had four turnovers and four fouls. Then he came off the bench in the loss to Purdue.
But he had 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting at Indiana. And after going scoreless in Minnesota's lopsided defeat at Michigan State -- the one ugly game the Gophers have played since their turnaround -- Hollins responded with 14 points including the game-tying three-point play to send the Illinois game to overtime, when his daring, surprising drive to the basket led to a layup and drew a foul.
"We like the ball in his hands in those situations," Smith said.
Like the rest of the team, per Smith's philosophy, the offense is supposed to come when the defense is on track. That certainly fits Hollins and his skills and style. If he's disrupting the passing lanes and blocking shots on defense, his shots seem more likely to fall on the other end.
Though the Gophers must continue to find ways to overcome their rebounding weaknesses, outside shooting inconsistency and soft defense against the 3-pointer to stay in the NCAA tournament conversation during February and early March, they have found a smaller starting lineup with Hollins on the wing that can produce wins.
"This seems to be working right now, so we're going to roll with it," Hollins said.
The Gophers play at Iowa Wednesday, their chance to avenge a 64-62 loss at home. Backup center Elliott Eliason hurt his ankle in practice Monday, and Smith said "hopefully" he'll be able to play. With or without him, if Hollins can contribute again in key situations the Gophers will be in good position for a win.
"We know what Austin can do. It's just a matter of time when you know it's going to be consistent," power forward Rodney Williams said.