Buckeyes and Greg Oden come to Williams Arena for tilt with Gophers

by Zach Eisendrath

A few short days after giving third-ranked Wisconsin nearly all it could handle, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team now has the daunting task of derailing the second-ranked team in the country.

The Gophers host freshman phenom Greg Oden and Ohio State on Sunday afternoon at Williams Arena. Tip-off is slated for noon and the game will be nationally televised on CBS.

Despite the obvious disadvantages, Minnesota (9-17 overall, 3-9 Big Ten) does have reasons to be encouraged heading into their matchup with the Buckeyes.

First, the Gophers challenged the Big Ten-leading Badgers for over 35 minutes Wednesday and second, Ohio State nearly blew a 24-point lead while sneaking past Penn State 64-62 that same night.

“We talk about it all the time, even going against Ohio State, the No. 2 team. We can beat anybody in the nation; it doesn’t matter who they put in front of us,” Minnesota redshirt freshman guard Kevin Payton said. “We’re going out there to win every time.”

But after giving up 29 points to National Player of the Year candidate Alando Tucker of Wisconsin, the Gophers must now find a way to contain Oden, who is thought by many to be one of the top picks in the upcoming NBA Draft should he declare for it.

Oden was sidelined for the Buckeyes’ first seven games of the season after having surgery on his right wrist, but is finally getting back to full strength and his numbers reflect it. He’s averaging 14.9 points during conference play and leads the league with 9.1 rebounds and 3.67 blocks per game.

But Oden isn’t doing it all himself, as his supporting cast could prove to be the best in the country in March. In fact, it can be argued that Oden might not even be having the best year of any Ohio State player.

Buckeyes freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr., who played alongside Oden at Lawrence North High School in Indiana, averages 10.3 points per game and leads the Big Ten with 6.42 assists and two steals per game in conference play.

That tandem is a big reason the Buckeyes have the most potent offense in the Big Ten, and that doesn’t bode well for a Minnesota team that has struggled defensively as of late.

Interim coach Jim Molinari hasn’t had many gripes with how his team has defended the last two games though, and he conceded after the loss to Wisconsin that good defense can sometimes be beaten by better talent.

It’s hard to argue the Gophers can match the talent Ohio State (23-3, 11-1) has after Buckeyes coach Thad Matta nabbed the nation’s best recruiting class, but the Gophers said they believe they can still make a game of it.

Although, Minnesota lost four straight games, many players came away encouraged with how the Gophers battled the Badgers. Junior guard Lawrence McKenzie was one of those players. He told his teammates in the locker room after the game they can build off the way they played against Wisconsin.

“These guys can play with anybody, and I believe that deep in my heart,” he said. “When you have that attitude and believe, you come out with a different type of confidence and you except to win games like (Wisconsin and Ohio State).”

Junior center Spencer Tollackson echoed similar sentiments. The man who might have to deal with Oden in the paint for much of the game, said Wednesday’s loss was the best game the Gophers have played all year.

Now, Minnesota can only hope to get rewarded for the progress the team is making.

“I thought we played very well. There were a lot of opportunities that we should have won that game (Wednesday),” Tollackson said. “We’re getting better, we just need to stay focused and try to get that game on Sunday.”