Gophers, Wildcats struggle on brink of NCAA elimination

by Jabari Ritchie

For Minnesota’s men’s basketball team, nearly everything wrong with its Big Ten season started two weeks ago in Evanston, Ill.

When the Gophers (15-10, 8-6 Big Ten) headed to Northwestern to face a struggling, 4-6 Wildcats squad on Feb. 13, Minnesota was enjoying a four-game winning streak that included double-digit wins over two ranked teams. With a victory over Northwestern, the Gophers would have moved into a first-place tie in the conference.

Instead, a two-point Wildcats upset kicked off a three-game losing streak threatening Minnesota’s shot at an NCAA tournament berth.

While the Gophers finally ended their losing skid with a 68-64 win at last place Penn State on Saturday, the Wildcats have won three of their last four to stay in contention for a winning record.

Now, when Northwestern (16-10, 7-7 Big Ten) visits Williams Arena for a rematch on Wednesday night, postseason hopes are at stake for both teams.

“We have a few things we’re going to try to do a little bit different,” said Minnesota coach Dan Monson. “But that was also a game where we had a nine-point lead on the road with five or six minutes to go. Against Northwestern that’s a pretty good margin.”

Northwestern has not finished above .500 in the conference since 1968 and travels to Indiana for its final game of the season on March 2.

“Our margin for error is very slim,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said about his team’s chances to earn its first sweep over Minnesota in 16 years. “Everyone on the team has to play pretty decently.”

Not only did Minnesota’s inability to win games start with its first matchup with the Wildcats, but the Gophers have struggled to put points on the board following the Northwestern loss. Minnesota has averaged 19 fewer points in its last four contests than in its first 10 conference games.

The Wildcats have the Big Ten’s top scoring defense, allowing an average of just 57.5 points per game.

“How many did Illinois score against Northwestern?” Monson said, referring to the Wildcats’ 56-41 loss to the Big Ten’s highest-scoring team on Saturday. “This late in the year, people aren’t going to let you go out and get 80 points. They’re going to dictate and take things away from you.”

The Gophers – who have the second-ranked scoring offense in the conference – averaged nearly 85 points per game in their 15 wins but have only scored above 70 in one of 10 losses.

Northwestern’s slow tempo, defensive style of play gave the high-scoring Gophers a headache in the teams’ last meeting.

“We need to try to get the tempo up, but who’s done it on Northwestern so far?” Monson said. “We need to value the possessions and make sure we don’t panic and take shots early in the clock because we’re trying to get the tempo going.”

Jabari Ritchie covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]