Gophers have a chance to end 2-game skid in Columbus

Coach Tubby Smith could earn his 400th win with a Gophers victory Saturday.

Zach Eisendrath

The Minnesota men’s basketball team is sick and tired of moral victories. Seeking an “authentic” win, the Gophers travel to Columbus, Ohio this weekend to challenge Ohio State.

Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m. at Value City Arena.

A win this weekend would do plenty to cure the pain Minnesota suffered after back-to-back heartbreaking losses to No. 9 Indiana and No. 11 Michigan State at Williams Arena last week.

A win this weekend would also put the Gophers (12-5 overall, 2-3 Big Ten) back into the NCAA tournament conversation, and at the same time, give head coach Tubby Smith his 400th career victory.

Sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook vowed after Sunday’s disheartening loss that his team has learned from its late-game miscues and will start to finish games better.

“We don’t like to lose and (Sunday’s) game will drive us to step up our play in the coming games,” Westbrook said at the postgame press conference. “We will execute better and finish these close games.”

Beating the Buckeyes in Columbus, however, won’t be an easy task. Yes, NBA lottery draft picks Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. are no longer wearing red and white. And yes, last years’ Big Ten Champions – who beat the Gophers 85-67 last season at The Barn – have lost three of four and aren’t expected to leapfrog the Hoosiers or Spartans this year for conference supremacy.

But Ohio State (13-6, 4-2) still returns three key components from last years’ NCAA Championship runner-up. Senior guard Jamar Butler averages a team-high 15.7 points per game in conference play, while starting forwards sophomore David Lighty and senior Othello Hunter average 9.7 and 9.5 points, respectively.

Add to that the 13.7 points and team-high 6.7 rebounds put forth by freshman center Kosta Koufos, the continual growth of freshman point guard Evan Turner, and head coach Thad Matta’s group all of a sudden looks like a major threat.

Similar to the Gophers, Matta said his team is learning on the fly how to integrate its talented freshmen with its veteran playmakers leaving little time for him to focus on any team other than his own.

“A lot of our focus is on us,” Matta said during the weekly Big Ten teleconference. “We don’t have the capability of ever feeling good or ever feeling bad (about our play). We just have to get better as a team.”

Injury update

After missing Sunday’s 78-73 loss to Michigan State with a thigh injury, freshman point guard Al Nolen is expected to play Saturday night against the Buckeyes.

Nolen is averaging 5.2 points, 3.9 assists and 2.4 steals in 22 minutes per game this season, and his 39 total steals rank him first overall in the Big Ten.

“I think he really would have helped us (Sunday) but he can’t help us if he isn’t 100 percent,” senior guard Lawrence McKenzie said Sunday. “Since this game is all about quickness, his thigh injury would have slowed him down. I think we are definitely a better team with him and we could have used him (Sunday).”

Noteworthy

Minnesota’s other freshman, Blake Hoffarber, averages 10.1 points per game off the bench, and leads the Big Ten in three-point field accuracy at 50.0 percent (43-86).