Minn. hoping Wildcats are first of four

The Gophers’ only hope of an NCAA tournament berth is a Big Ten championship.

Zach Eisendrath

After letting signature wins slip through its grasp on numerous occasions during the regular season, the Minnesota men’s basketball team needs to win the Big Ten tournament, or at the very least make it to Sunday’s championship game, to make the Big Dance.

Coach Tubby Smith’s squad begins its quest to play four games in four days this afternoon with a first-round matchup with 11th seeded Northwestern at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

“We’re all packing for four days, that’s our goal, to go down there and play four games,” senior center Spencer Tollackson said.

The sixth-seeded Gophers have been busy trying to regroup after a regular-season finale loss at Illinois on Saturday, in which Minnesota was outrebounded an embarrassing 45-19.

To solve his teams’ rebounding woes, Smith tried to toughen up his players by making them wear shoulder pads and helmets – borrowed from the Gophers football team – as they went through rebounding drills Monday morning.

“It brought me back to my ninth-grade glory days with the football team. It was definitely pretty intense. It definitely made us tougher,” Tollackson said.

“Ever since that day they’ve been sitting over there on the sideline, so we know if we don’t go really hard and are physical with each other, we’ll have to strap them up.”

As fate would have it, the Gophers’ first round opponent, the Wildcats, team rank last in the conference in rebounding, averaging 27.2 boards per game.

And ironically, should Minnesota – who beat Northwestern by double-figures twice this season – advance to the second round, the Gophers will face an Indiana squad which is tied with Michigan State as the best rebounding team in the Big Ten (41 rebounds per game).

But history suggests beating any team three times in a season isn’t an easy task, something senior guard Lawrence McKenzie said the Gophers are well aware of.

“Anything can happen in March,” McKenzie said. “But I think if we go out there and do our game plan, we’ll be OK.”

Smith, who was very candid with the media on Wednesday -admitting the Gophers would only play in the NIT, not the newly constructed CBI postseason tournament – said he wants his team to enjoy the conference tournament.

“This is an exciting time. You don’t want your guys too wound up tight,” Smith said. “There is already pressure on them because it is a tournament and a one and done thing. So you want them to relax and have fun.”