As the regular season dissolves into next week’s Big Ten tournament, the Gophers men’s basketball team can be excused if it is itching to get its last two games out of the way and get to Chicago, the site of the inaugural conference tourney.
Minnesota (12-13 overall, 5-9 Big Ten) is almost locked in as the eighth seed in the tournament — which it has to win to make the NCAA field, and do extremely well in to make the NIT — making tonight’s game at Purdue (22-6, 10-4, third place) unimportant in the standings.
The Gophers are also still having a hard time avoiding injuries. Rob Schoenrock, who played a key role in the second half of Minnesota’s 82-77 win over Penn State a week ago, hurt his right ankle in the final seconds of that game and isn’t likely to play tonight.
All of this makes now a bad time to play No. 11 Purdue, a big, physical team smarting from consecutive losses at Iowa and Penn State. The Boilermakers, who have a pair of feisty big men in Brad Miller and Brian Cardinal, are likely to be testier than usual — not a team anyone wants to play when searching for a respite.
“There’s going to be white and maroon all over the floor,” Gophers assistant coach Bill Brown said.
The thing is, the way the Gophers are playing, they’re not looking for a break now, anyway. An exciting second-half comeback against Penn State and a recent spate of good practices have coach Clem Haskins convinced his team can harvest even more momentum for the Big Ten tournament.
“If you’d have been (at practice) yesterday, it was unbelievable how we competed against each other,” Haskins said. “That’s what coaching is all about.
“If we do it again today, then tomorrow night we’ll come out with a `W’ against Purdue. If we can somehow get Rob to give us a good, hard 10 to 12 minutes, then we’ll kick Purdue’s butt.”
But Schoenrock, Haskins said, has a less than 50 percent chance of playing. The Boilermakers, meanwhile, have a more pressing injury problem, no matter what Haskins says about Schoenrock.
Sophomore guard Jaraan Cornell will almost assuredly miss his fourth straight game with a sprained left ankle. Cornell has been the surprise player for Purdue this season, leading the Big Ten in three-point percentage (.504). He averaged more than 20 points per game in the six games before his injury. Purdue assistant coach Bruce Weber said Monday that Cornell would play a few minutes at the most against Minnesota.
“I don’t they’re up and down,” Haskins said of Purdue’s recent struggles. “I think it’s Cornell. You can’t lose 20 points a game. If he was still in the starting lineup they’d be (12-2). It’s like us losing Sam Jacobson.”
The Gophers did lose Jacobson for three games early in the Big Ten season, with disastrous results, and will lose him (along with guard Eric Harris and Schoenrock) to graduation after the season.
The impending conclusion of the season and careers has compelled Haskins and the players to reflect on both. Haskins said he might have actually had more fun this season than last year’s Final Four year because of the improvement he’s seen in his players.
He also said he can’t believe that Jacobson and Harris, who have been in the program four years, will be gone shortly. Haskins snapped his fingers, conveying how fast he felt the time went.
“Where did those four years go?” he said.
“That’s probably because he’s been here a lot longer,” Jacobson said after hearing of Haskins’ viewpoint. “It seems like (my time here) has been a lot longer for me. At this time in your life, you’re growing so much as a player and person each year that it feels longer.”
At this time of the season, though, it still probably doesn’t feel long enough.