Physical practices give men’s hoops much-needed toughness

Brian Hall

During Minnesota’s practice Thursday, the Gophers men’s basketball team was running full court drills when senior Justin Lorang hit the floor.

As Lorang and senior Travarus Bennett battled for a rebound, the bigger Bennett gave Lorang a shove. As the ball traveled upcourt Minnesota assistant coach Mike Petersen praised Bennett for his hustle. The play exemplified why the Gophers are now in contention for a Big Ten title.

Throughout their three-game win streak the players (13-7, 6-3 Big Ten) have been put through, and put themselves through, physically demanding practices to improve their defensive efforts and validate themselves as a team to be reckoned with in the second half of the conference season.

“We’re a work in progress,” coach Dan Monson said. “As a coach you are never happy but we’re getting better.”

Minnesota travels to Iowa on Saturday with one more thing to prove – whether or not it can win on the road.

During conference play the Gophers are 5-0 at home but only 1-3 on the road. In fact, Minnesota is only 1-6 away from Williams Arena all season.

“For us to be successful, we have to win on the road,” Monson said. “Lately we have been winning games with our offense. But, you can’t do that on the road, you must play defense.”

To beat the Hawkeyes (15-9, 4-6) inside-outside combination of seniors Reggie Evans and Luke Recker, Minnesota must be at the top of its defensive game, an aspect Monson hopes is improved through the physical practices.

Evans is the only player in the conference averaging a double-double. The forward collects a Big Ten-best 11.2 rebounds per game to go with 16.5 points. Recker, a 6-foot-6 guard, is second in the conference, averaging 17.2 points per game.

Prior to the season, the Hawkeyes were picked to finish second by both the conference coaches and media. But Iowa has had its own problems with winning on the road.

Iowa is 0-5 away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena during the Big Ten season while never scoring more than 70 points in a game. The Hawkeyes have won every conference game in which they have scored 70 points.

They own a 4-1 home record.

“Where we have had the bullseye, (Minnesota) has been able to relax and just play,” Hawkeyes coach Steve Alford said. “That is what we are trying to do now that the bullseye has resided.”

Minnesota knows Iowa periodically struggled last season before winning the conference tournament and the Gophers are wary of the Hawkeyes erupting again.

“They still have the same weapons and abilities,” Monson said. “We can’t expect them to play like that. They are at home, they have their backs against the wall.”

And so, Minnesota takes to the road again hoping to build off its successful home stand.

“They have struggled winning on the road, just as we have,” Alford said. “But this is a must game for us.”