Gophers can play spoiler in final contest

Zach Eisendrath

In its final game of what has been a tumultuous regular season, the Minnesota men’s

basketball team could potentially play the role of the spoiler.

With not much else to play for, the Gophers will try and ruin Purdue’s chances of receiving an NCAA tournament bid by upsetting the Boilermakers tonight at 7 at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.

“That’s really all we can do in this game,” sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala said of playing spoiler.

While Minnesota (9-20 overall, 3-12 Big Ten) can only play for pride and confidence, Purdue coach Matt Painter has plenty of motivation to work with over the next week and a half.

Many believe the Boilermakers (18-10, 7-7) need to finish the regular season with a pair of wins and then win at least one game in the conference tournament to receive an at-large bid to the Big Dance.

That’s a very realistic possibility, as Big Ten bottom-feeder Northwestern is coming to West Lafayette on Saturday.

The main reason Purdue is even in the tournament discussion is because of its nearly perfect 14-1 record at home. And the Boilermakers have a good chance of getting that 17th win, considering the Gophers are 1-11 away from Williams Arena this season.

But Minnesota shouldn’t be a team Purdue takes lightly. That’s because the Boilermakers are one of the three Big Ten teams the Gophers have beaten this year.

In the first conference game for both teams on Jan. 3, Minnesota hit eight of 10 three-pointers and beat Purdue 65-59 at Williams Arena.

“I thought they were a very tough, physical team,” Abu-Shamala said.

“We just have to do exactly what we did the first game,” he said. “It’s going to be a grind-it game. We know they’ve been playing better at home, so we’ve got to really play well for our team to get our confidence back up.”

However, the win against Purdue came nearly two months ago, and the Gophers have been in a free fall since then.

Minnesota has lost seven straight games, while the Boilermakers, led by seniors David Teague and Carl Landry, have won four of their last six games as they continue to piece together their NCAA tournament résumé.

As a pair, Teague and Landry are one of the best inside-out combos in the conference. Teague averages 14.5 points per game and shoots 42.9 percent from beyond the arc, while Landry is third in the conference in scoring with 18.6 points per game. Landry also chips in 6.8 rebounds per contest – making him a strong candidate for being a first team all-Big Ten selection.

Two Gophers players Landry will likely battle in the paint are junior center Spencer Tollackson and sophomore center Jonathan Williams.

Neither has started recently as freshman center Bryce Webster was recently named the team’s starting big man for the rest of the season, but both are still going to be counted on as big contributors, according to interim coach Jim Molinari.

Molinari said his duo will likely come off the bench together as they complement each other nicely. Williams is a strong defensive presence, while Tollackson can shoulder the scoring load in the paint.

“They seem to play off each other’s energy,” he said. “I kind of like that combination when they come in there.”

But many players, not just Williams and Tollackson, will have to contribute for Minnesota to beat Purdue at Mackey Arena.

And Molinari said he knows it won’t be easy, considering what’s at stake for the Boilermakers.

The Gophers found out firsthand how dangerous a team with more to play for can be in their 62-51 home loss to Michigan on Saturday.

“What happens is, when we get to the second half (of the game), those teams seem to have another gear, because their rewards are much more immediate,” he said.

“The reality of it is – the positive motivation of teams trying to make the tournament is much stronger than the motivation of trying to be a spoiler.”