Gophers duel with Iowa has history

by Todd Zolecki

When a Big Ten title is at stake, it seems every game is a big one for the Gophers men’s basketball team.
Tonight is no different. Of the Gophers’ big victories this season against Clemson, Indiana and Michigan — all might be eclipsed if Minnesota can beat Iowa at Williams Arena.
Both teams hold a share of first place in the Big Ten. There’s a buzz around that this is Minnesota’s most important game since 1990. That year, the team reached the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament.
Gophers coach Clem Haskins thinks otherwise. He says the biggest game in his 11-year tenure came not during the 1990 tournament, rather a year earlier during the Big Ten season — against the Hawkeyes.
At the time, the Hawkeyes were No. 6 in the nation and Minnesota was fighting to be competitive.
The Gophers pulled off an 80-78 upset at Williams when Minnesota center Jim Shikenjanski tipped the ball in with two seconds on the clock. Shikenjanski hadn’t scored a basket until that point. As it turned out, it might have been one of the biggest baskets since Haskins came to Minnesota.
The win over the Hawkeyes sparked a Gophers run to the NCAA tournament, where they reached the Sweet Sixteen.
“This will go down as one of the best, if not the greatest win of my coaching career,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said after that game. “I think we showed we can be very competitive here on our home court.
“What a win for the program. I think this proves to the world that we have turned the corner.”
Eight years later, the Gophers play Iowa for different reasons, but none any less significant. They are in position to win their first Big Ten championship since 1982.
Ironically, that year, Minnesota played the Hawkeyes for the title. With three games to go in the Big Ten season, the two teams met in Iowa City, Iowa. The Hawkeyes had a 12-3 conference record. The Gophers were 11-4.
It took 40 minutes of regulation and three overtimes before Minnesota finally won, 57-55. Gophers guard Darryl Mitchell sank two free throws with no time left on the clock to win it.
Iowa lost its final two games and the Gophers won their final two, giving them the title outright.
Tonight’s game isn’t for the Big Ten title. Haskins reminds fans that his team has 11 games after this one. He and Iowa coach Tom Davis are trying not to make the game bigger than Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“You could look at it that way, but I don’t look at it that way,” Haskins said. “If this was the last game of the season, and we needed this to get into postseason play or win the Big Ten title, it would be the biggest game of the year.”
Both coaches know they don’t need to hype up this game. Fans and media are likely to do that all by themselves.
Davis won’t remind his players of it either. They’re smart enough to figure out the implications.
“Personally I just approach it like we do every other game,” Davis said. “When you get a game like this against the top-ranked team in our league, and a team that is playing as Minnesota is playing, it gets a lot of hype. Your players are well aware of what they’re facing so you don’t have to do much more than prepare.”
The Gophers are preparing to stop Iowa point guard Andre Woolridge, who leads the conference in scoring (19.8 points per game) and is second in assists (5.5 per game).
Woolridge assumed the role of team scorer once forward Jess Settles went down with an injury during the Maui Invitational in November.
Settles’ absence has made the Hawkeyes’ fast start a surprise in the Big Ten. Some say the Hawkeyes benefited from an easy nonconference and conference schedule. Iowa opened conference play with wins against Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State. The team lost Saturday to No. 13 Michigan.
For those reasons, the Hawkeyes aren’t ranked in the Associated Press’ Top 25.
“You’re constantly learning as a coach about your personnel,” Davis said. “I’m not sure how they’re going to respond coming into the game. We’ve got to keep improving. We’ve got a lot of players doing this for the first time.”