Gophers look to end road-game jinx

by Murali Balaji

The Gophers men’s basketball team has five games left and an NCAA tournament bid at stake.
Yes, it’s crunch time.
Minnesota (14-6 overall, 5-5 in the Big Ten) is one of seven conference teams vying for a spot in the tournament, and is looking for momentum heading into March and the Big Ten tournament.
Unfortunately, the team the Gophers play tonight is in the same position as well.
After starting the season 13-1, Iowa (15-6, 6-5) has plummeted back down to the middle of the pack in the conference. Iowa coach Tom Davis credited the overall strength of the teams in the Big Ten this year, as well as injuries, to the Hawkeyes’ problems of late.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’ve been beaten by some great ballclubs,” Davis said. “We have some guys that are somewhat banged up, but we’re hopeful that they’ll be ready to play.
“We’ll need all of them against Minnesota,” he said.
Despite their recent difficulties winning, the Hawkeyes still pose a formidable threat to the Gophers, who are searching for a way to win on the road. Three of the final five games will be away from the security and comfort of Williams Arena before the conference tournament Mar. 4-7 in Chicago.
“We’ve got to play one of our best games of the year to beat the Hawkeyes,” Minnesota coach Clem Haskins said. “They’re a team that is capable of blowing you out if you don’t pressure them and play real physical.”
You want physical? The Hawkeyes boast a solid inside game, led by forward-center J.R. Koch. Stopping Koch, whose wiry 225-pound frame disguises his strength in the post, will be key if Minnesota hopes to establish itself in the rebounding department.
But to get anything established, the Gophers must find balance on the offensive end, particularly after a mediocre effort against Michigan on Sunday. Haskins expressed his disappointment in the team’s inability to give consistent support to star forward Quincy Lewis, who has managed to put points on the board despite constant double-teaming.
“We had guys who didn’t step up,” Haskins said. “We need guys to step up and score for us and pull down some rebounds. It can’t always be just Quincy scoring for us.”
But if Minnesota’s inability to find a complement to Lewis has given Haskins headaches, it has also legitimized Lewis as a premium thoroughbred in college basketball and the top candidate for the Big Ten Player of the Year award.
“We have only one true Big Ten performer in Quincy,” Haskins said. “Quincy doesn’t have the supporting cast they have at Michigan State. That is why Quincy, to me, is the MVP of the league.”
Haskins is hoping that Lewis’ supporting cast will be slightly enhanced with the re-insertion of sophomore guard Terrance Simmons into the starting lineup. Simmons’ solid performance at Michigan was one of the team’s few bright spots on Sunday, and he will be counted on to break down opposing defenses.
“(Terrance) penetrates a lot better, so hopefully that will create a lot more scoring opportunities for us,” Haskins. “Terrance is very quick and is really starting to show some things for us.”