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Jon Krawczynski / Associated Press, Published March 19 2013

Inconsistency has been common for Gophers this season

MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Golden Gophers were ranked as high as eighth in the country, and then they weren’t ranked at all. They beat No. 1 Indiana, and then they lost to Nebraska.

They backed into the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed, and will face a banged-up UCLA team on Friday.

It’s been a crazy season for the Gophers, filled with significant achievements and embarrassing defeats. The players hope that the mentally exhausting run will better prepare them for the wild swings in momentum at the tournament.

“We know we’ve played one of the toughest schedules, we’ve played the best teams, the Dukes and Indianas of the world,” senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said Tuesday. “We know we can compete with them. We have to get back to playing that way and actually believing.”

That belief has been tested several times this season. After a 15-1 start that included victories over Memphis, Michigan State and at Illinois propelled the Gophers to No. 8, they lost four straight games to tumble out of the Top 25 altogether.

They rebounded to beat the Hoosiers and pound Penn State at Williams Arena, only to lose their final three games – at Nebraska, at Purdue and to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament – and stumble into the South regional in Austin, Texas. Yet the Gophers are one of the trendy picks for an upset in their opening round game against the Bruins (25-9).

The inconsistency from a team that has had its core together for at least two years now has led to some speculation that coach Tubby Smith’s job is on the line.

Blunt as ever, Smith is no stranger to the hot seat. He coached in the pressure cooker at Kentucky before leaving for Minnesota, and he’s secure enough in his approach and his system to not let outside criticism affect him.

“That’s not up to me. We just do our job and do the best we can and go from there. ... I don’t apologize or I don’t defend anything,” Smith said earlier this week. “We do the best we can. We do a good job. That’s why we’re NCAA bound.”