U sits apart from crowd

Todd Zolecki

All of a sudden, Saturday’s game between the Gophers men’s basketball team and Iowa has lost some of its luster.
Entering this week, No. 3-ranked Minnesota had road games against its top two competitors in the Big Ten — Purdue and Iowa — that would prove whether it deserved to be atop the Big Ten and be that highly ranked. As a test of resiliency, this week was hard to top.
If the Gophers lost Wednesday night to Purdue and the Hawkeyes won at Michigan State, Saturday’s game in Iowa City, Iowa, would have been key in determining the Big Ten champion. Two wins for Iowa would have put them in a tie for first place alongside the Gophers.
The Gophers (21-2, 10-1 Big Ten) won their first road battle of the week, a 70-67 win against the Boilermakers. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes lost to the Spartans.
For now, the pressure is off Minnesota, which now holds a three-game cushion over Iowa with seven Big Ten games remaining.
Saturday might not be as crucial as it appeared three days ago, but it’s still a big game. The Hawkeyes seek vengeance on the Gophers, who bullied past them at Williams Arena three weeks ago, 66-51.
Iowa coach Tom Davis said Minnesota did everything but tackle Iowa guard Andre Woolridge in that game. He said if officials don’t call the game more closely, and prevent Minnesota from playing like NFL linebackers, the crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena might riot.
That could be interesting.
The Gophers know this game is important because they can not only move closer to clinching the title, but they can also put themselves in position for a top-seed in the NCAA tournament. The seedings are announced Mar. 9 on Selection Sunday.
A No. 1 seed in the tournament is out of the Gophers’ control, but winning the title is not. And though it appears that might be just a matter of finishing the season, players and Gophers coach Clem Haskins said they intend to play hard.
“We know we have to go to Iowa, and we know it’s going to be a tough basketball game,” Haskins said. “They’re good. They have a chance to get back in the race if they beat us. We just have to stay focused.”
That will happen because he said his players act as though they’re 0-23 — not 21-2 and off to the best start in program history. That’s probably more coach-speak, but keeping the team focused is a must for Haskins. After Iowa, the Gophers have tough games against Illinois and Indiana at Williams Arena, and ones on the road against Michigan and Wisconsin.
So far, players don’t seem too distracted.
“We’re just pushing for coach Haskins to win the Big Ten championship,” Gophers guard Bobby Jackson said. “Without him, I don’t think we’d be in this position. We’re real happy Iowa lost, because it takes some of the pressure off, but we know it’s going to be a tough game.”
It’ll also showcase two players touted as conference Player of the Year candidates: Jackson and Woolridge.
At Williams, the Gophers senior had the better game. Not only did his team win, but he had 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and five steals. Woolridge had 12 points (3-for-14 from the floor), eight assists and five rebounds. Woolridge had only three points in the first half and wasn’t much of a factor.
The Gophers’ physical play affected Woolridge and the rest of the Hawkeyes.
“Over the second half of the season, our concerns are physical, with injuries, and mental, with players who haven’t been through an entire season,” Davis said. “Certainly Andre (Woolridge) and Ryan Bowen have, but we have several guys who are going through a full college season for the first time, and we are concerned.”