U takes advantage of crucial road series

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Normally, the worst way to gauge the importance of any sporting event is to listen to coaches and players.
For instance, the Gophers men’s basketball team could be playing a team of all-star poets in an exhibition game, and coach Clem Haskins would voice concern over his players confusing iambic and dactylic pentameter.
But last week Purdue and Iowa were on Minnesota’s schedule, and whatever comments the Gophers made about the importance of the two games were heartfelt.
Purdue is the three-time defending Big Ten champion. Iowa has been in the top three of the conference all season. Both games were on the road. No one could deny that the week was one of the most crucial of the season for the Gophers.
Once the week ended, the hard numbers said only this: Minnesota, now 11-1 in the Big Ten, had advanced a decent lead for the conference title into a death grip. But the Gophers also proved two conflicting aspects about themselves during the week. One is that they’re the best team in the Big Ten.
Every other team in the Big Ten has struggled mightily at some point this year, so this might be a dubious distinction. Also, the conference has an anemic 3-11 record in the NCAA tournament the last two years.
That the Gophers are the Big Ten’s premiere team right now is sometimes due as much to other teams’ ineptitude as it is to their prowess. Purdue and Iowa both bumbled their way to 21 turnovers and double-digit second-half deficits against the Gophers.
Minnesota ended up beating Purdue by three points and Iowa by two, so a case could be made that the Gophers faced adversity and overcame it. Of course, a case could also be made that they simply let the opposition back into the game. Just don’t tell that to Haskins.
“Those were two very difficult games,” he said. “You really have to be tested in order to be a good team, and we were tested. This is a very good league with very good competition.”
The Gophers have also impressed their lesser opponents this year. Iowa guard Kent McCausland rattled off a laundry list of why he thinks Minnesota is above the fray in the Big Ten after Saturday’s game.
“They’re a good ballclub and they have all the attributes,” McCausland said. “They don’t have one star or stud player, but they’ve got good guards, they’re a physical team, they execute well. Everything’s there … they’ve got the bench, and they’re confident out there.”
Of course, McCausland is used to playing Big Ten teams, so his observations are relative. His team, like Purdue on Wednesday, had a chance to beat the Gophers in the closing seconds after falling far behind. With the Big Ten title all but in hand, Minnesota can’t help but peek ahead to the NCAA tournament.
Which brings up the other point the Gophers proved this week: Just because they’re the Big Ten’s best doesn’t mean they don’t have plenty of room for improvement.
There were times during the second half of both games when Minnesota didn’t look anything like the No. 3 team in the country. If the Gophers have trouble putting away ordinary Big Ten teams, can they expect to live up to their ranking in the tourney?
Junior guard Eric Harris thinks so, but he knows that the Gophers won’t be able to endure the kinds of lulls they’ve had in the last two games, even if they were important wins.
“Each team is different,” Harris said. “If we do play a team like Kansas or Wake Forest, each possession will be more crucial. We’ll have to adjust if we play a team like that. The circumstances will be different.”
It seems a bit unfair that, although they’re the best team in the conference, the Gophers might have to make the Final Four to satisfy the expectations of themselves and the public. But that’s exactly the dilemma they created for themselves by coming up big in one of the biggest weeks of the season.