by Murali Balaji

For the Gophers, the wait is over. It’s time to play.
After spending most of the weekend recuperating from a first round loss to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament, on Sunday Minnesota (17-10, 8-9 Big Ten) accepted an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers earned a seventh seed in the West regional, and will travel to Seattle to play tiny Gonzaga University, with an enrollment of less than 4,495, this Thursday.
Despite concerns that Minnesota would be overlooked because of its early exit in the conference tournament last week, Gophers coach Clem Haskins said he knew the NCAA selection committee wouldn’t snub his team for a tournament berth.
“The committee evaluated us on our season,” Haskins said after the selections were announced. “We had success on 26 games, not the Big Ten tournament.”
The Bulldogs (25-6) were seeded 10th this year after winning the West Coast Conference regular season and tournament titles for the first time in school history. Despite their relative obscurity, Gonzaga — tucked away in the forests of northwest Washington — boasts one of the top perimeter shooting teams in the country.
“They’re a great shooting team, especially from beyond the arc,” Haskins said. “They’re really athletic for a perimeter team, too, so we’ve got our work cut for us.”
Gonzaga guards Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo drew most of the attention for the season, averaging 43 and 38 percent from the arc, respectively, but Haskins also expressed concern about 6-foot-8 forward Casey Calvary. Calvary led the team in rebounds, but also stretched defenses with his 43 percent three-point shooting.
Forward Quincy Lewis, who will appear in his second NCAA tournament, was anxious to play out west.
“We’ve got our dancing shoes and we’re ready to get going,” Lewis said. “We’re just ready to see how far we can go dancing.”
With Lewis expected to bounce back from his disappointing eight-point effort against Illinois last Thursday, the Gophers are rearing for what could be an old-fashioned, wild west shoot-out.
But Gonzaga coach Dan Monson, whose team led the WCC in scoring this year, believes the game will ultimately be decided on defense.
“Both teams have very potent offenses,” Monson said. “But I think whoever plays the best defense will win this game. It’s going to come down to who can make the key stops and grab the loose rebounds, because we can’t expect to score on every play.”
After a short week of practice, the Gophers will head out west to meet their date with destiny. While most prognosticators believe Minnesota won’t last past the first weekend of tournament play, Gophers’ guard Kevin Nathaniel says the team is out to prove its detractors wrong.
“We’re just going to ride our excitement and motivation,” Nathaniel said. “Right now, we feel we can play with any team in the country, and we’re going to prove that.”
“We’re going there not just to play,” Haskins added. “Winning the championship — that’s what drives me, and I know our guys are just as motivated to win.”
The stigma of being a team that has had problems on the road didn’t leave the Gophers after their loss to Illinois. But Haskins insists that the team’s struggles in the regular season won’t mean anything this month.
“I don’t look back — that’s the past,” Haskins said. “There is no tomorrow now. We can’t quit today or tomorrow, or this week.”