Gophers, Wildcats meet for third time

Senior Ralph Sampson III is questionable with a tweaked knee.

Charlie Armitz

Time after time this season, Gophers men’s basketball players have stressed that their struggles don’t reflect those from 2011 when the team lost 10 of its last 11 games and missed postseason play.

And yet, one year after their most disappointing stretch under Tubby Smith’s tenure, here they are again — buried at the bottom of the Big Ten as they stumble into another first-round conference tournament game against Northwestern.

The Gophers (6-12 Big Ten) played Northwestern in the first round of last year’s Big Ten tournament, losing 75-65 to end their chances at earning an NCAA tournament bid.

They also missed the less-prestigious National Invitational Tournament, which could happen again this year if Minnesota loses to the Wildcats on Thursday.

With only one quality win and an 18-13 record overall, Minnesota needs at least one more win to clinch an NIT berth.

To make the NCAA tournament, the Gophers will likely have to win the Big Ten tournament. That means they’ll have to upset four conference opponents in four days.

“Our goal is definitely to get into the NCAA tournament,” junior Rodney Williams said. “We’re going in with the mindset that we’re going to be there until Sunday. … [The NIT] is not the goal right now.”

Minnesota’s recent struggles don’t help its case — the Gophers had lost six straight games prior to Sunday’s 81-69 win against lowly Nebraska. Their only win against a Big Ten team that finished the season with a winning record came Jan. 12 at then-No. 7 Indiana.

Smith said the team has spent the past week focusing on fundamentals with the hope that it will take better care of the basketball Thursday.

“That’s where we had most of our issues — with turnovers, poor ball handling and poor passing,” Smith said.

Minnesota ranks last in the Big Ten in turnovers (14.1 per game) and turnover margin (minus 1.1).

While the Gophers have put themselves in a tough situation with late-season struggles, the pressure in Thursday’s first-round game falls primarily on Northwestern (8-10 Big Ten), which could earn its first-ever NCAA tournament bid with a win.

The Wildcats and Gophers split their season series 1-1, with each team winning on its own home court. In their last meeting on Feb. 18, Minnesota played one of its worst games of the season on both ends of the court, falling 64-53.

John Shurna, the conference’s leading scorer in 2011-12 with 19.8 points per game, had 18 points in the win. Dave Sobolewski led all scorers with 22 points on 4-for-5 shooting from long range.

Point guard Julian Welch led the Gophers with 21 points in the loss, but he has missed Minnesota’s last three and a half games with a hip pointer.

Smith said Wednesday that he expects Welch to play Thursday.

He also said senior forward/center Ralph Sampson III is questionable after he tweaked his knee in practice this week. Smith said Sampson was held out of practice Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I think it’ll be OK,” sophomore Austin Hollins said of the team’s chances if Sampson doesn’t play. “We lost Trevor [Mbakwe] earlier in the season, and we picked up his slack to the best of our ability. It’ll make us a lot quicker — we’ll have a smaller lineup, and we can run the floor a lot more. We’ll just adjust.”

 

– Dane Mizutani contributed to this report.