Gophers head to California for first true test

No. 22 Minnesota first plays No. 12 Butler in the 76 Classic in Anaheim.

Marco LaNave

The Gophers menâÄôs basketball team has built its highest anticipation in years but will have its first big test this weekend. No. 22 Minnesota (3-0) will face No. 12 Butler (3-0) at 7:30 p.m. Thanksgiving Day in the first round of the 76 Classic at the Anaheim Convention Center. Of the eight-team tournament field, four are ranked and six made the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Senior guard Lawrence Westbrook said the Gophers are not looking past any opponent, but they know what a couple of wins could mean, especially Thursday night against Butler. âÄúThis is a huge game for us,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúIâÄôm not going to lie, we all look at standings and rankings, and we want to be up at the top.âÄù Butler, the defending regular-season Horizon League champion, is the highest ranked team from a mid-major conference. The Bulldogs are similar to the Gophers in that they return every major contributor from a team that made the NCAA Tournament. Junior forward Matt Howard was the Horizon League Player of the Year after averaging 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season. Sophomore Gordon Hayward, who was second on the team with 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season and was named the Newcomer of the Year, leads the team with 15.3 points and eight rebounds per game this season. Sophomore guard Shelvin Mack has 13 points and a team-leading five assists per game this season. Hayward and Mack were on the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the under-19 world championship last summer. GophersâÄô sophomore forward and center Ralph Sampson III was one of the final cuts from the U.S. roster. Sampson, fellow sophomore Colton Iverson and senior forward Damian Johnson might face their toughest tests so far this season in Howard (listed at 6-foot-8, 230 pounds) and Hayward (listed at 6-foot-9, 207 pounds). âÄúTheyâÄôre very disciplined âĦ TheyâÄôre not going to beat themselves,âÄù Johnson said. âÄú[WeâÄôve] got to pressure them and force them into making mistakes âĦ and use [our] athleticism against them.âÄù Utah Valley was able to drive inside and pass for open shots outside against Minnesota last Thursday. Butler does the same thing, junior point guard Al Nolen said, so the team has practiced defending the style they expect to see from the Bulldogs. âÄúThey like to penetrate and kick a lot and shoot a lot of threes,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúTheyâÄôll be doing [that] with a lot more athletic guys and better guys [than Utah Valley], so itâÄôll be a lot harder.âÄù The Gophers will have little time to celebrate or lament the result against Butler, as they will play either UCLA or Portland the next night. They will have a day off before playing a final game Sunday. âÄúIt definitely helps us test our endurance, our mental toughness,âÄù Nolen said. Johnson, who remembers the teamâÄôs three-game, three-day tournament in Las Vegas in December 2007, said the team was worn out by the final game, which it lost to UNLV. âÄúA lot of guys were a little fatigued,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúI think weâÄôve got a little more depth this year; weâÄôve got a little more athleticism.âÄù In their only regular-season game against a ranked non-conference opponent last season, the Gophers upset then-No. 9 Louisville on a neutral court in Glendale, Ariz. That win was critical in Minnesota earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers probably wonâÄôt surprise anyone the way they did against the Cardinals, but Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said that, while his team expects to compete, it will have an underdog mentality. âÄúWeâÄôve got to âĦ show that weâÄôre a worthy opponent,âÄù Smith said. Confidence is higher for this yearâÄôs team after last seasonâÄôs win over Louisville and trip to the NCAA Tournament, Westbrook said. âÄúWe have more of a swagger this year because we know what we can do,âÄù Westbrook said. Former coach Monson could meet the Gophers Westbrook and Johnson could run into their former coach and current Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, who resigned as the GophersâÄô head coach after the first seven games of the 2006-07 season. âÄúIâÄôm going to go congratulate Coach Monson on the job heâÄôs doing at Long Beach State and thank him for getting me [to Minnesota],âÄù Johnson said. âÄúIâÄôve got love for Coach Monson. He was still my coach, and weâÄôre just going to get the chance to reminisce with each other.âÄù