Gophers set for last tourney push

Minnesota faces Penn State Thursday in the Big Ten tournament for another chance to play Michigan State.

Marco LaNave

When the menâÄôs basketball season began four months ago, the Gophers didnâÄôt expect to be in their current position. With returning and recruited talent to rival any that theyâÄôve had the past two seasons under head coach Tubby Smith, their sights were set on being near the top of this weekendâÄôs Big Ten Tournament and preparing for a strong run in the NCAA Tournament. âÄúI donâÄôt want to really get into saying what our record should be,âÄù senior forward Damian Johnson said after last SundayâÄôs win against Iowa. âÄúWe had a lot of games that we needed to win, and we just didnâÄôt take advantage of the chance.âÄù The Gophers have struggled to step up in big games, Smith said, but they will need to break that habit in a big way if they hope to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. Minnesota (18-12, 9-9 Big Ten) has lost seven games by five points or fewer, including three one-point losses to teams currently ranked in the top 25. ThursdayâÄôs first-round opponent, Penn State (11-19, 3-15), doesnâÄôt have the caliber of those squads. But the Nittany Lions finished 3-3 in their last six games, with losses to each of the Big TenâÄôs three co-champions by an average of less than five points. âÄúTheyâÄôre a team thatâÄôs playing extremely well right now,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWe know that theyâÄôve gotten better, which you knew they would.âÄù The Gophers swept two games against Penn State this season by a combined seven points. They won at home 75-70 behind 29 points from senior guard Lawrence Westbrook. They also escaped on the road when Westbrook hit a buzzer beater in a 66-64 victory. Nittany Lions guard Talor Battle, an All-Big Ten second-team selection, had two 20-point games against the Gophers and has scored 30 points on four occasions this season. But Smith said his post players will be vital to the teamâÄôs success this weekend. Sophomore center Ralph Sampson III had his second career double-double in the game at Penn State, but he said he needs to bring an increased level of execution and intensity to ThursdayâÄôs contest. âÄúIf I can be more consistent and more efficient in my moves, throw in a few more fakes, knock-down shots that IâÄôm confident in, it will give me a completely different look than the first [two] games,âÄù Sampson said. Johnson said the key to success in the tournament is maintaining emotions. He said the team struggled to do that in 2008, when it beat third-seeded Indiana on a last-second shot by Blake Hoffarber in the quarterfinals but lost the next day to 10th-seeded Illinois. âÄúI think we got way too excited after that [Indiana] game,âÄù Johnson said. âÄú[Illinois was] a team that we were very capable of beating, and we ended up losing.âÄù Minnesota can earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the programâÄôs first Big Ten Tournament title. To reach their first-ever conference championship game, the Gophers will have to go through No. 11 Michigan State and possibly No. 6 Purdue. Those two teams escaped Williams Arena this season with one-point wins and remain the only two Big Ten opponents that Minnesota hasnâÄôt beaten under Smith. âÄúWe want to make sure that we earn the things that we get and the respect that we feel like we deserve,âÄù Smith said. âÄúThe only way you can get that is to go out and play at a level thatâÄôs beyond what youâÄôve ever played at before, and thatâÄôs what we try to do every day.âÄù HereâÄôs a look at the GophersâÄô possible opponents and other first-round games: No. 3 Michigan State (bye) The Spartans (24-7, 14-4) defeated Minnesota in the quarterfinals last season and swept two regular-season games, including a 65-64 victory in which they overcame a 13-point second-half deficit at Williams Arena. Michigan State lost four of its last nine games to cool more than the other two conference co-champions. The Spartans have reportedly suspended junior guard Chris Allen indefinitely. Allen scored 19 total points in two games against the Gophers, including four 3-point field goals in the SpartansâÄô win at Williams Arena. No. 7 Northwestern vs. No. 10 Indiana This will be a rematch of SaturdayâÄôs regular-season finale in Bloomington, Ind., where the Hoosiers (10-20, 4-14) snapped an 11-game losing streak with an 88-80 overtime win to split the regular-season series. The Wildcats (19-12, 7-11) have earned their highest seed in six years but theyâÄôve lost four straight first-round games. A Hoosiers win would set up a game between Indiana and Purdue, the two conference schools closest to Indianapolis âÄî both about an hourâÄôs drive away. No. 2 Purdue (bye) The Boilermakers (26-4, 14-4) are the defending tournament champions, but they will be without the most outstanding player of last yearâÄôs tournament. All-Big Ten junior forward Robbie Hummel tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee in a 59-58 win Feb. 24 at Minnesota and will miss the rest of the season. Purdue still has All-Big Ten weapons in first-team guard EâÄôTwaun Moore, second-team center JaJuan Johnson and defensive player of the year Chris Kramer. No. 8 Michigan vs. No. 9 Iowa The Wolverines (14-16, 7-11) and Hawkeyes (10-21, 4-14) will meet in the tournamentâÄôs first round for the third straight season. Iowa was the only other team besides the Gophers to be swept by Michigan during the regular season. The winner will face perhaps the conferenceâÄôs hottest team in Ohio State. No. 1 Ohio State (bye) The No. 5 Buckeyes are the tournamentâÄôs top seed for the third time in five years and have won 10 of their last 11 games. They are 14-3 since Jan. 6, when Big Ten player of the year Evan Turner returned from a back injury. Ohio State (24-7, 14-4) has lost to just one Big Ten opponent (Purdue) since falling to the Gophers on Jan. 9 at Williams Arena. No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 5 Illinois (Friday) Illinois (18-13, 10-8) has nearly fallen off the NCAA Tournament bubble with losses in five of their last six games. To make a reasonable case for an at-large bid, the Illini probably need at least a win over Wisconsin (23-7, 13-5), whom they beat on the road but lost 72-57 last Saturday at home.