Big 12 road test won’t be an easy one

The Gophers take on Iowa State, riding a 1-13 away record from last season.

Zach Eisendrath

In case you’ve forgotten, the Minnesota men’s basketball team is currently in season.

After a 10-day layoff, the Gophers finally return to the court tonight, taking on Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa.

It seems like ages ago that Minnesota played its first game of the season – an 84-52 season-opening win against Army at Williams Arena.

Since that time, the Gophers have been forced to scrimmage against only themselves; something coach Tubby Smith said has made his team extra hungry for its second game of the season.

“We’ve been a little edgy, I know they have been anxious to play for so long, but that’s good,” he said. “Over the last couple of days I’ve sensed they are ready and hungry to get out and (play). Hopefully they won’t have too much rust.”

Junior forward Jamal Abu-Shamala echoed those same sentiments.

“Beating up on each other for a week and a half, that’s tough,” he said. “It really makes you appreciate getting out there and playing against someone else.”

That “someone else” will be the Cyclones out of the Big 12 Conference.

Coach Greg McDermott’s squad, which staged a second half rally to beat the Gophers last year at “The Barn,” should provide an early test for Minnesota.

While Iowa State (2-1 overall, 0-0 Big 12) is being picked by the media to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 Conference, it will still be the first road game of the season for a Gophers team that went 1-13 away from Williams Arena last year.

Senior guard Lawrence McKenzie, who has played in Ames before while with Oklahoma, said he doesn’t think the Gophers’ road woes from last year will carry into the new season because Minnesota (1-0, 0-0 Big Ten) is a more confident and experienced team.

“I think this is a totally new team, it’s hard to compare them to what we did last year,” he said. “I have a lot of faith in our guys and we have a lot of veterans who’ve played on the road. We are just going to do what we do – play.”

Smith, who has had ample time to prepare for his first road game at the helm of the Gophers, said he knows traveling to Ames will provide his team with an early season challenge.

“Certainly, Iowa State is a team that is a very formidable opponent,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of stories on how tough it is to play there.”

Biggest threat

Smith’s main concern entering the contest is 6-foot-7-inch sophomore Wesley Johnson, although it is unclear whether the Cyclones sophomore forward will play tonight.

Johnson, who was an honorable mention freshman All-America selection last year, has not played yet this season because of a bone bruise to his left foot. However, Smith said, when healthy, Johnson can be a game-changing player.

“He rivals a guy like Kevin Durant talent-wise,” Smith said. “They are a different team with Wesley Johnson in there.”

Injury update

Smith said the Gophers are as healthy as they have been since team practices began in mid-October.

After sitting out most of the practices since Minnesota’s last game while nursing a groin injury, McKenzie returned to practice on Monday. He should be in the Gophers’ starting lineup tonight.