Gophers seek first Big Ten home win

They’ll host Northwestern, which upset No. 6 MSU on Saturday.

Charlie Armitz

Coming into the 2011-12 menâÄôs basketball season, the main question surrounding Minnesota and Northwestern was whether the two struggling programs would make the NCAA tournament in March.

That question persists in mid-January as the Gophers and Wildcats prepare for SundayâÄôs matchup at Williams Arena âÄî only now, things have grown much more complicated.

Minnesota (2-4 Big Ten) and Northwestern (2-3) have had remarkably similar results through three weeks of conference play âÄî in both their surprising successes and unexpected failures.

After an 0-4 start, the Gophers rallied last week to upset then-No. 7 Indiana and beat Penn State to win back-to-back road games for the first time in three years.

The win over Indiana was also the HoosiersâÄô first home loss in 12 games this season.

The Wildcats defeated then-No. 6 Michigan State in their last game âÄî an 81-74 upset that ended the SpartansâÄô 15-game winning streak.

Both Minnesota and Northwestern have suffered heartbreaking single-digit losses to Illinois and Michigan, both have defeated Penn State and both have one bad conference loss.

As the host, the Gophers are naturally the favorite Sunday, although they havenâÄôt won a conference home game in their last seven tries.

Likewise, Northwestern is 0-2 on the road in 2011-12. The last time the Wildcats won in Minnesota was Jan. 20, 2007.

Yet they were 2-1 against the Gophers in 2010-11, winning in Evanston, Ill., and at the Big Ten tournament as part of MinnesotaâÄôs nine-game losing streak to end the season.

The Gophers have done little to shake their identity as a noncontender in the conference since then, although their last two wins have provided optimism in more ways than one.

Amid solid team play on both ends of the floor, freshman Joe Coleman has emerged as a prime scoring threat. Coleman scored a career-high 23 points on 13-for-14 free-throw shooting in MinnesotaâÄôs 80-66 win against Penn State.

In his three games as a starter, Coleman is averaging 15.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in 27.7 minutes. During his first 16 games off the bench, he averaged 3.7 points and 1.1 rebounds in 9.9 minutes.

âÄúHeâÄôs been preparing for this opportunity and this chance, and heâÄôs embraced it,âÄù head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúHe doesnâÄôt fear failure or success âÄî heâÄôs just what you want in a player.âÄù

While Coleman has burst onto the scene with his improved play, Rodney Williams has flown under the radar as the teamâÄôs most consistent player on offense and defense.

Through 19 games, he leads active Minnesota players with averages of 10.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 30.1 minutes.

Since Trevor MbakweâÄôs season-ending ACL tear, Williams has scored double figures in all but two games while shooting 60 percent from the field.

NorthwesternâÄôs success has been a tale of its two star forwards, John Shurna and Drew Crawford. The two have combined to average more than half of the WildcatsâÄô points this season while shooting 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range collectively.

The GophersâÄô greatest weakness in 2011-12 has been defending the 3-point shot, but they have held opponents to 26 percent shooting from deep in their last two games. Prior to that, they allowed Purdue to shoot 67 percent in their last home game âÄî a 79-66 loss to the Boilermakers.