Shot at momentum starts with Illini

If the Gophers can knock off a team that was ranked as high as No. 12 this season, their stretch run is manageable.

Josh Katzenstein

All the talk surrounding the Gophers menâÄôs basketball teamâÄôs loss of Al Nolen has become repetitive.

How do you replace a starting point guard? How do you account for his defense? Is senior Blake Hoffarber enough of a leader âÄî or a good enough all-around player âÄî to carry Minnesota to its third straight NCAA tournament bid?

In four games without Nolen, the Gophers are 1-3, so theyâÄôre certainly still looking for the answers to those questions.

But if they can fix the problems âÄî turnovers, poor rebounding and lack of energy âÄî that have surfaced without Nolen for tonightâÄôs game against Illinois, the Gophers have a soft enough schedule remaining to enter the postseason on a hot streak.

âÄúStakes are high going into this game,âÄù said junior forward Ralph Sampson who has been one of the GophersâÄô steadiest scorers of late, averaging 12.2 points over the last six games.

Both teams are currently in the driverâÄôs seat for an NCAA tourney bid, but the Illini (15-8 overall, 5-5 Big Ten) have lost three of their last four games and five of their last seven after being ranked as high as No. 12 earlier this season.

The Gophers, meanwhile, are on their longest losing streak of the season, but all of their remaining games after tonight are against the Big TenâÄôs bottom six. Still, Minnesota canâÄôt afford to lose at Williams Arena where the Gophers are 11-2 even after an 82-69 loss to No. 1 Ohio State on Sunday.

âÄúEvery time you play in front of your home crowd here you should get that win,âÄù said Hoffarber, who had four of the GophersâÄô 19 turnovers against Ohio State, âÄúand in order to be a great team in this league youâÄôve got to win at home.âÄù

To beat the Illini, Minnesota needs to play great perimeter defense. Illinois leads the Big Ten in 3-point shooting, hitting at a 41 percent clip.

Carrying the load for the Illini is senior guard Demetri McCamey, averaging 14.7 points per game. HeâÄôs also second in the Big Ten in assists (6.7 per game) and third in 3-point shooting (48.5 percent).

âÄúHeâÄôs kind of the glue to their team,âÄù Gophers coach Tubby Smith said.

Hoffarber will be key in stopping McCamey, and the task will be even more difficult after MinnesotaâÄôs leading scorer (14.2 points per game) injured his knee on Sunday. Hoffarber said heâÄôs recovered from the âÄúflukyâÄù injury that hobbled him for the second half of the Ohio State game and asserted that his 34.5 minutes per game this season havenâÄôt taken a toll.

âÄúI donâÄôt feel like IâÄôm wearing down or anything like that,âÄù he said. âÄúWeâÄôve all got to keep a positive attitude and just take care of business.âÄù

The Gophers also need a big game from junior forward Trevor Mbakwe who, despite still leading the Big Ten in rebounding at 10.3 per game, has struggled of late. In the last two games, Mbakwe has averaged just 7.5 points and eight rebounds. Smith said Mbakwe has been trying too hard to draw fouls instead of playing the rugged, hard-nosed brand of basketball he showed earlier this season.

âÄúHe canâÄôt be flopping around,âÄù Smith said. âÄúThis is not drama school. We want to go in and play fundamental basketball.âÄù

Those fundamentals start with rebounding, a category in which the Gophers are still the best in the Big Ten, and end with turnovers. Minnesota is last in the Big Ten in turnover margin.

âÄúThis time in the season, youâÄôve got to start playing like itâÄôs your last game, and itâÄôs like building your résumé to get into postseason play,âÄù Hoffarber said. âÄúThese next games are crucial for us. We need to get some good wins.âÄù

-Sam Gordon contributed to this report.