Home games critical down the stretch

The Gophers’ NCAA tourney hopes depend heavily on last few games at the Barn.

Zach Eisendrath

At season-opening media day in October, senior center Spencer Tollackson said the Minnesota men’s basketball team would likely need to win every game played at Williams Arena to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Fast forward four months and three home losses later, and Tollackson has revised his prediction but he hasn’t wavered on the ultimate goal. He still believes the Gophers (15-7 overall, 5-5 Big Ten) can make a run at the tournament if they take care of business at the Barn down the homestretch, starting with tonight’s game against Illinois.

“That’s pretty much our goal.” Tollackson said of winning the final four home games of the season. “We’re really trying to focus on Illinois, but it’s definitely our goal to not lose in this building ever again Ö ever again,” he said.

Tollackson, knows better than anyone that will be easier said than done.

First, getting past the Illini may be a difficult task. Illinois is coming off an emotional, heartbreaking 83-79 double-overtime home loss to No. 13 Indiana on Thursday night; a game coach Bruce Weber’s squad had multiple chances of winning. Tollackson, who played under Weber in the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Foreign Tour in the summer of 2005, watched the game from start to finish and said he believes Illinois (10-14, 2-9) is much more talented than its record indicates.

“I’ve played for coach Weber, I know he will have his guys fighting till the end of it,” he said. “I definitely think they are better than what their record says they are.”

Illinois senior center Shaun Pruitt, who averages a team-high 12.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, can be a tricky matchup, Tollackson said, because he is left handed and has a variety of post moves.

Senior forward Brian Randle and junior guard Trent Meacham both average 10.2 points per game and are also on Gophers’ coach Tubby Smith’s radar.

Most teams have tried to guard the Illini’s three double-figure scorers by playing zone, but Smith said his team plays better man-to-man defense, so he isn’t sure if that is something he will stick with, or even attempt, tonight.

“They’ve got the talent, obviously, to beat us. We’ve got to do some things to guard them,” Smith said.

Newfound energy

Back to .500 in conference play for the first time since Jan. 17, Minnesota has a bounce in its step, Smith said.

“Practice has been going well, guys are a little more spirited and that’s been very beneficial,” he said.

The two players who have appeared the most reenergized as of late have been the Gophers’ two freshmen. Guards Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen have looked rejuvenated the past two games – both wins – after admitting they may have hit some sort of “freshmen wall” in late January.

Nolen, the Big Ten’s steals leader with 2.3 per contest, poured in 11 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three steals in Saturday’s win. Hoffarber added eight points in 24 minutes.

“They are no longer freshman, going through the wars. We played them earlier in the season

to give them that experience.”