By JEFF BARTL
(AP) -- Coach Tubby Smith didn't find much to celebrate during Minnesota's back-to-back losses to perhaps the Big Ten's two best teams, but his confidence in Austin Hollins never wavered.
Now Smith hopes the junior guard can help his team get back on track.
The 12th-ranked Golden Gophers look to avoid a third consecutive defeat by ending a four-game road losing streak to Northwestern on Wednesday night.
Minnesota (15-3, 3-2) won its first three conference games by an average of 16.0 points, but was dominated at times during an 88-81 loss at then-No. 5 Indiana on Jan. 12 and Thursday's 83-75 home defeat to then-No. 5 Michigan.
The Gophers have played solid in the second half in each of their conference games, though their first-half struggles doomed them in the defeats. They pulled away after leading by a combined eight points at halftime in their wins, but were down by 23 to Indiana at the break and trailed Michigan for the final 33 minutes.
"We got off to another slow start again, and these types of slow starts will hurt us going forward," guard Joe Coleman said. "We can learn from it and hopefully be ready for our next game against Northwestern."
Hollins scored 19 points in a 69-51 home victory over the Wildcats (11-8, 2-4) on Jan. 6. After recording a career high-tying six assists in a win at then-No. 12 Illinois on Jan. 9, he netted 13 points against Indiana before scoring a career-high 21 versus Michigan.
Smith lauded Hollins, who is hitting 59.3 percent of his 3-pointers in Big Ten play and ranks near the top of the conference with 38 steals.
"We (have) one guy that comes every day, he's going to give it everything he has. That's Austin Hollins," Smith said. "It's not even close when it comes to the hardest worker in our program. Not that the other guys don't work hard, but they don't come with that kind of intensity, and it shows."
Hollins, though, went scoreless in 22 minutes of Minnesota's 64-53 loss in the most recent meeting at Northwestern on Feb. 18. The Gophers haven't won a road meeting in the series since a 92-72 victory Feb. 6, 2008.
The Wildcats, though, are coming off a 67-59 home loss to then-No. 2 Indiana on Sunday, three days after beating then-No. 23 Illinois 68-54 on the road.
Northwestern has been inconsistent in conference play, winning its last two road games by a total of 30 points while its losses - all at home - have come by an average of 18.3 points. Coach Bill Carmody, though, believes his squad is on the right track after outscoring the Hoosiers in the second half.
"I think we're starting to get some kind of identity, who we are, how we play, how we're going to play to win," Carmody told the school's official website. "That's what every team has to do. It seems to me we're making some steps. They may be incremental in some ways, but I don't think so. I think we're getting better."
The Wildcats used a 1-3-1 zone to frustrate Indiana and could do the same against the Gophers. Minnesota ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten with 14.7 turnovers per game, including 15.6 during conference play.
"If we defend, we'll be OK," said Wildcats guard Dave Sobolewski, who scored 22 points in the last meeting in Evanston.
Minnesota has turned it over an average of 16.3 times during its road losing streak in the series.
Updated January 23, 2013