Minnesota will try to end skid in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

The Big Ten has to yet to win the annual challenge, losing all seven years.

Zach Eisendrath

Coming home from Disney World rarely is viewed as a pleasantry. However, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team has different sentiments.

The Gophers appear thrilled to be back at home after a disastrous trip to Orlando, Fla. for the Old Spice Classic. They went 0-3 – the only winless team in the tournament – and extended their losing streak to four games.

Trying to snap its current skid will be a difficult task for Minnesota as it encounters undefeated Clemson tonight at Williams Arena in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m.

“We learned that we’ve got a long ways to go,” junior forward Dan Coleman said of the Orlando trip.

“Four straight losses definitely doesn’t feel good Ö but I think it is also motivation,” he said. “It’s early; we’ve got a lot of games left. I don’t think anybody is down as far as letting (the road trip) carry over to other games.”

The Clemson Tigers (7-0 overall, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are rolling early on and have quality wins to back up their undefeated mark. Their most impressive victory came at Old Dominion, where they knocked off the Monarchs 74-70. One week later, Old Dominion knocked off then-eighth-ranked Georgetown on the road.

But starting the season on an encouraging note is nothing new to fourth-year coach Oliver Purnell’s squad. Last season, Clemson jumped out to an 11-0 mark before forward James Mays was ruled academically ineligible for the remainder of the season.

Mays, now a junior, is back with the team and has been a major early-season factor. The versatile 6-foot, 9-inch, 222-pounder is averaging 11.9 points per game and grabs a team-high 7.4 rebounds per contest. He also leads the team with 20 steals.

Much like the Gophers (2-4, 0-0 Big Ten), the Tigers have depth in their backcourt. Senior Vernon Hamilton handles the point guard responsibilities and is usually a shoe-in to play 30 minutes a night. Sophomore K.C. Rivers has yet to start a game this season but leads the team with 13.1 points per game off the bench.

Clemson is just one game in a nonconference schedule Minnesota coach Dan Monson said he believes is the toughest in the Big Ten and since he’s been with the program.

As for how Monson is preparing his team for its clash with the Tigers, he said he is more concerned with his squad than any other current opposition.

Yesterday, in their only day to prepare for Clemson, the Gophers looked briefly at what problems the Tigers present, but focused more on correcting glaring concerns of their own that the holiday weekend brought to the forefront.

Monson said the team didn’t succeed in fulfilling many of its offensive or defensive principles. He mentioned effort and execution as two areas his inexperienced team needs to improve upon in a hurry.

Coleman said winning the turnover battle, avoiding breakdowns defensively and as has been a problem all season – rebounding – are where the team needs to improve.

While all those corrections may look difficult, junior center Spencer Tollackson said fixing the team’s problems is simple.

Tollackson and Coleman both said the veterans on the team need to accept more of a leadership position and help their younger teammates.

“I think this team has a lot of potential,” Tollackson said. “We just haven’t been playing well. The record speaks for itself.”

Back home, in the usual friendly confines of the Barn – Minnesota is 59-8 in nonconference games under Monson – and with a chance to right the ship, sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala said the team is still full of optimism.

“We have great chemistry,” Abu-Shamala said. “Just with a four-game stretch like that, it’s frustrating and your confidence goes down. But you can gain confidence back as soon as you get a good win or a defensive stop.”