Still no Al, but in need of Big 10 title

There was hope that senior PG Al Nolen would return for the conference tournament, but he remains out with a foot fracture.

by Josh Katzenstein

Despite entering on a five-game losing streak, the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team has recent history on its side heading into the Big Ten tournament.

Minnesota hasnâÄôt lost a first round game in the conference tournament during the Tubby Smith era. Last season the Gophers advanced to the finals before falling to Ohio State, and in 2008 they won two games before losing to Illinois in the semifinals.

And in two of the past three tournaments, Minnesota beat Northwestern, its first opponent this weekend at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Even after dropping nine of 10 games to close the regular season, junior Trevor Mbakwe thinks Minnesota (17-13, 6-12 Big Ten) can do some damage.

âÄúWe still believe in each other,âÄù the All-Big Ten second team forward said last week. âÄúWe have just as much talent as other teams in the conference. We just have to show everybody else in the Big Ten tournament.âÄù

Also helping the GophersâÄô confidence, Mbakwe said, is their 3-0 record this season on a neutral court. However, all three of those wins came in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in November with a healthy Al Nolen, who Smith said will not play in the conference tournament. Freshman Maverick Ahanmisi is slated to start at point guard.

Although the circumstances are entirely different, this is the second straight season Nolen will miss the Big Ten tournament. He sat for the final 17 games last season due to academic ineligibility, but the Gophers managed a 9-8 record without him âÄî largely thanks to Devoe Joseph, who transferred to Oregon in January.

This year Minnesota is just 2-9 since Nolen broke his foot Jan. 22.

âÄúItâÄôs definitely painful watching the team play because I want to be out there so bad,âÄù the senior said Saturday. âÄúLast year, that was tough, and then having an injury and getting a little taste of playing here and there and only playing 14 games and seeing how good we could be at full strength. ThatâÄôs really tough.âÄù

The Gophers are 1-1 against the Wildcats (17-12, 7-11) this season. The victory came at Williams Arena in the first game after Nolen broke his foot. The loss happened last week in Evanston, Ill. after Northwestern overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half.

The winner will face Ohio State, the top-ranked team in the nation. That would be a huge statement victory for the Gophers, but even with a win over the Buckeyes (29-2, 16-2), Minnesota likely needs to win the conference tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament.

âÄúWe should be able to surprise some teams,âÄù Mbakwe said after the Gophers lost to Penn State on Sunday. âÄúI think weâÄôve just got to play hard, and weâÄôve got nothing to lose. Hopefully weâÄôll be able to surprise or shock somebody.âÄù