It’s now or never for Gophers to revive tournament hopes

It may not be too late for Minnesota to make a run like one team did in 2008-09.

It's now or never for Gophers to revive tournament hopes

Josh Katzenstein

Jan. 9 at Williams Arena: Minnesota 73, Ohio State 62. Jan. 31 in Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State 85, Minnesota 63. Although these games could just signify the importance of home-court advantage in the Big Ten, the margin in SundayâÄôs game certainly appears to be an anomaly if the two menâÄôs basketball teams want to be considered in the same class. But the fact is the Buckeyes and Gophers are two teams heading in different directions. On Sunday, Ohio State looked like Syracuse circa 2003, with Evan Turner playing the role of Carmelo Anthony in his teamâÄôs quest for April glory. This team is heating up at the right time, and head coach Thad Matta has given Turner enough of a supporting cast to make a deep tournament run. Meanwhile, the Gophers appear poised to be the parallel of last seasonâÄôs Arizona team. The 2008-09 Wildcats had plenty of talent but stumbled during the middle of the season. They somehow made the tournament as a No. 12 seed in what most believe was solely on name recognition and history and to honor legendary coach Lute Olson, who retired just before last season began. ArizonaâÄôs talent, along with a debatably fortunate tournament draw, helped it reach the Sweet 16. Unfortunately for Minnesota, it doesnâÄôt have ArizonaâÄôs name recognition when it comes to hoops. And in his third season with the program, Tubby Smith may not have the pull of Olson, who coached the Wildcats for 25 years. Following a loss to then-No. 16 Arizona State last year, the Wildcats rallied to win seven-straight games, including two over-ranked opponents in UCLA and Arizona State again. After falling to now-No. 13 Ohio State on Sunday, the Gophers must hope for a run to mirror that of last yearâÄôs Arizona squad. If the Gophers (13-8 overall, 4-5 Big Ten) somehow win their next seven, they would have defeated Wisconsin and Purdue, both currently ranked in the top 20. Both games are at home, and if the close losses to Michigan State proved anything, itâÄôs that Minnesota is at least capable of hanging with top opponents. With the season already two-thirds complete, though, the Gophers donâÄôt just need signature wins over ranked opponents. They need wins. Period. In March 2009, Minnesota sat at 21-9 entering the Big Ten tournament. It was fairly simple: beat Northwestern in the first round, make the NCAA tournament. They did both, entering the Big Dance as a No. 10 seed. But the GophersâÄô fate last season rested in the good fortune of another team. An early win over Louisville, which ended the regular season ranked No. 1, helped carry Minnesota into the tournament. The Gophers could have added similar support to their case with a win in either of two winnable games against now-No. 5 Michigan State. A little more hypothetically, if the Gophers had advanced to the final of the 76 Classic in November and beaten now-No. 6 West Virginia, they might also have had a win to carry them. Instead, they dropped two games to Portland and Texas A&M, both teams they expected to beat. What silenced some critics about ArizonaâÄôs bid last year? A win over then-No. 4 Gonzaga at the beginning of the season, in addition to that late-season streak. Unless the Boilermakers or Badgers can sneak into the top five in the next few weeks, Minnesota may need to wait for another shot at the Spartans or Buckeyes in the Big Ten tournament to claim a signature victory. Easier said than done, of course. That means now is the time. Time to not just beat the next nine opponents, but somehow prove to be better than the other team. Road games at Penn State, Northwestern, Illinois and Michigan are certainly winnable. Home contests with Michigan and Indiana should be easy wins. Dismantling Wisconsin or Purdue will not be easy, but either or both wins would certainly carry weight on Selection Sunday. If the Gophers win out, theyâÄôre in. But letâÄôs be serious: Winning nine straight conference games is no simple feat. Fortunately for the Gophers, they have an advantage few other teams can claim, one that spawns from the many problems this team has faced. Two college-ready recruits in Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe, who helped make the Gophers a sleeper pick before the season began, havenâÄôt and likely will not play before the season is through (WhiteâÄôs Monday announcement isnâÄôt official). Starting point guard Al Nolen is also suspended, and Damian Johnson is dealing with a thumb injury. Despite the personnel issues, good can be found in the bad. ItâÄôs time for the Gophers to embrace the âÄúus against the worldâÄù mindset and play to prove people wrong. Yes, this team has some key losses, but that should only motivate the other players to work harder. Rodney Williams led the Gophers Sunday against the Buckeyes with 13 points in 20 minutes, both highs since Nov. 13. HeâÄôs stepped his game up. If others follow suit, why canâÄôt Minnesota reel off nine straight? ItâÄôs now or never, and right now the NIT is looking more suiting for this Minnesota team. LetâÄôs see what the coming weeks bring.