U doesn’t have history on its side at Purdue

by Todd Zolecki

Any attempt this week by the Gophers men’s basketball team to avoid the past is pointless. But as it turns out, that might not be such a bad thing after all.
In back-to-back road games this week at Purdue and Iowa, which could define Minnesota’s season and give it the inside track for the Big Ten title, the Gophers are surrounded by a sense of history. Tonight’s game against the Boilermakers in West LaFayette, Ind., is especially interesting.
All season, Gophers coach Clem Haskins has said the Big Ten title goes through Indiana and Purdue. And with No. 3 Minnesota on the verge of winning its first conference championship since 1982, it’s hard to argue that point. Earlier last month, they beat Indiana in overtime. But tonight’s game at Mackey Arena should be more of a challenge.
Not because a game in Assembly Hall is easier than a game at Mackey — it’s not — but because the following facts make it so:
ù The Boilermakers have won the last three conference titles and trail Minnesota by a game and a half in the Big Ten standings.
ù The Gophers have never won at Mackey Arena in Haskins’ 11-year tenure.
ù The last time Minnesota beat the Boilermakers on the road it also won the conference title. Coincidence? Maybe, but in the thick of the Big Ten season, it seems all too perfect.
The stage is set and the drama is there for a heated conference battle.
“We’re in the driver’s seat and everybody is depending on what we do,” said Gophers center Trevor Winter. “It’s an advantage. It’s nice, but it puts a lot of pressure on you to produce.”
Winter’s teammate, center John Thomas, said he hopes his sense of history makes him more motivated to win and possibly change the future.
That’s encouraging, considering Thomas hasn’t been the best at keeping up on Gophers lore. While at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, he said he didn’t know anything about Minnesota basketball. He played football back then and never paid much attention to the Gophers. He said he didn’t know much about the team that made the Elite Eight of the 1990 NCAA tournament.
Don’t bother asking him about the last time Minnesota won at Purdue. Thomas was seven years old and lived in Turkey, where his father was playing professional basketball.
At that time, he said, he had a British accent, a puffy Afro and was more into theater and playing the piano than sports.
If the Gophers are to win, they’ll have to overcome a hot Purdue team that has won six of its last seven and is jelling — much like Minnesota did in the second half of the conference season last year.
Thomas said his teammates will also have to get past the unfriendly atmosphere of Mackey, which can get deafening at game time.
“It’s kind of funny, when you go in there for practice and bounce the ball, you hear kind of like a metallic ricochet,” he said. “You kind of hear that when the crowd really gets going.”
The Gophers beat Purdue on Jan. 25 at Williams Arena, 91-68. Haskins said a combination of Purdue’s competitive fire, drawn from Coach Gene Keady, and memory of the blowout loss at Williams will fire up the Boilermakers players.

Notes: Assistant coaches Larry Davis and Bill Brown walked into Tuesday’s media luncheon wearing shoulder pads, poking fun at Iowa coach Tom Davis’ comments that the Gophers are physical enough to play in the NFL. They wore the pads throughout the press conference, occasionally hitting each other and giving each other high-fives.
Haskins said Minnesota might recruit one junior college player, possibly two, to fill the void that will be left next year by departing seniors Thomas and Winter. A guard might also be recruited from the junior college ranks to replace Bobby Jackson.