Gophers head to Illinois for finale

by Anthony Maggio

When Minnesota’s men’s basketball team faced Illinois at Williams Arena in its final regular season game last year, the Gophers needed a win to get off the NCAA tournament bubble.

But this year’s regular season finale versus the Illini is in Champaign, Ill., and Minnesota needs a win to stay on the bubble.

“We need another quality win,” coach Dan Monson said. “Sunday gives us an opportunity to do that.”

The Gophers will play Illinois on Sunday on national television without backup point guard Aaron Robinson, who tore his right meniscus in the first half of Tuesday’s game with Indiana.

Robinson, who has averaged 11.33 minutes a game in Minnesota’s current three-game losing streak, will miss the rest of the season.

As a result, Ben Johnson, who returned to action last Sunday after missing four games with mononucleosis, will see some action at point guard.

Johnson, who hasn’t taken reps at the point since Robinson’s emergence, played point guard his first-year season at Northwestern.

Johnson played 14 minutes against the Hoosiers, and will play an important role in Sunday’s crucial contest.

Minnesota currently sits tied for sixth in the Big Ten with Indiana. With one game left for every conference team except Wisconsin – which clinched its first outright Big Ten title in 56 years Wednesday night – the Gophers’ best-case scenario is a tie for fourth place.

A Minnesota victory coupled with Purdue and Michigan State losses would put the Gophers, Boilermakers and Spartans in a three-way tie for fourth place. In that scenario, Minnesota wins the tiebreaker and has a first round bye with the fourth seed in the Big Ten tournament. Purdue plays at Michigan and Michigan State plays at Ohio State on Saturday.

The worst-case scenario for the Gophers is an eighth seed in the conference tournament. If Minnesota loses Sunday and Ohio State wins Saturday, the Buckeyes win the seventh-place tiebreaker, meaning the Gophers would play Iowa in Thursday’s first round.

A win on Sunday would greatly help Minnesota’s NCAA chances, but the Gophers’ road futility makes that situation a bleak one.

Minnesota is 2-5 on the road this season, and hasn’t defeated Illinois at Assembly Hall since the 1995-96 season. The Gophers are 0-8 against the Illini in Monson’s coaching tenure.

But junior Michael Bauer isn’t concerned about history, he wants his first trip to the Big Dance.

“If we get this win here and then have a decent Big Ten tournament,” Bauer said, “we’ll definitely still be going to the NCAA and be dancing.”