No. 1 Illini true test for upstart Minnesota

Bob Wothe

Minnesota’s men’s basketball team members stood facing the student section Wednesday at Williams Arena with wide smiles on their faces, clapping and singing the rouser in their typical post-game tradition.

The squad had just put the finishing touches on a 70-65 win over Indiana – yet another game that nobody expected it to win before the year had begun.

The Gophers (14-5, 4-2 Big Ten) have come a long way from a team that wasn’t expected to win even 10 games all season, and they have put themselves in position to challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid with a strong season-ending run.

But Minnesota has yet to prove itself against elite competition, losing four of five games against the top 50 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index.

The Gophers’ lone quality win? A 72-56 defeat of Holy Cross on Dec. 4 – not exactly the type of win a team wants to have at the top of its resume.

So when Minnesota travels to Champaign, Ill., on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. to take on No. 1 Illinois (20-0, 6-0), the Gophers have a chance to prove themselves against a team that most experts say belongs in the Final Four.

But the upstart Gophers insist they aren’t just there for the Champaign scenery.

“We’re going down there to win,” senior Brent Lawson said. “We’re playing good team defense, and we just want to give ourselves our chance at the end.”

More important than anything else for the Gophers in getting that “chance” might be the timing of the game.

Illinois is coming off an emotional comeback win Tuesday at Wisconsin and will travel this Tuesday to Michigan State.

In addition, the Saturday game is being billed as the “Centennial Game,” honoring alumni from some of the best Illini teams in the 100 years that Illinois basketball has existed.

With all of the distractions, at least one Gophers player thinks catching Illinois off guard could be the ticket.

“They’re going to take us for granted,” said J’son Stamper, whose nine points and eight rebounds helped Minnesota to hold on against Indiana. “They don’t think that they can be beat at home, and they definitely don’t think we can beat them.”

And yet Stamper and the rest of the Gophers are well aware that the Illini have far more talent and that a win is highly unlikely.

But for a team that wasn’t even given a chance to finish in the top half of the Big Ten, the opportunity to hang with the No. 1 team in the nation might just be the perfect occasion to prove some skeptics wrong yet again.

“This team always has a small margin for error, and that dissipates when you take on No. 1,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “But we’ll be ready, and hopefully can give them a challenge.”