Undermanned Iowa next for men’s basketball

Anthony Maggio

It was bad news for Ben Johnson, but it sort of made sense.

Three days after his best performance in a Minnesota jersey, a 15-point outing against Purdue on Saturday, Johnson was diagnosed with mononucleosis.

The guard had been struggling during most of the Big Ten schedule, and was losing playing time. Now he knows a big reason why.

“My body’s been hurting and run down since the Texas Tech game (on Dec. 28),” Johnson said. “I’ve had zero energy and my body just hurts during practice and after practice.”

Johnson is in the later stages of the disease, which caused a fever of 102 degrees Tuesday morning. He will be out two to three weeks, and will be re-evaluated next week.

With Johnson out, the Gophers rotation is down to nine players. But that is still more than Wednesday’s opponent, Iowa, has played with all season.

The Hawkeyes, who lost four players for various reasons before the season began, have at most an eight-man rotation. The last three games, they have had only seven thanks to a knee injury to center Jared Reiner.

But Minnesota coach Dan Monson expects Reiner, who has practiced this week, to be cleared and be eligible to play at Williams Arena Wednesday night.

Iowa coach Steve Alford said if Reiner does play, he will see limited minutes.

Either way, the Gophers must be prepared for what is their second game of an important stretch.

After facing Iowa, Minnesota has a week off before traveling to Northwestern. The Gophers then play Penn State, a team without a conference win to date, at home.

If Minnesota wins out, it will be 8-4 going into a tough four-game conclusion to the season with trips to Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois included.

Why is all this important?

The Gophers need 10 conference wins to all but ensure an NCAA tournament berth.

“We have to be double-digits in the Big Ten or else we’ll have the same thing as last year where we’re borderline,” guard Maurice Hargrow said, “and the teams with the bigger names, like Michigan State, will get in over us.”

If Minnesota does not win its next three, it must win at least two road games – the Gophers have won one all season – and beat Wisconsin at home to reach the 10-win plateau.

Still, despite the Hawkeyes losing four of their last five games and playing their third straight road game, Monson doesn’t expect his squad to wear out a thin-benched Iowa to win its second straight game.

“Depth is very overrated unless by chance a couple guys in the same key positions get in foul trouble simultaneously,” Monson said. “You don’t need 10 or 11 guys. They go eight deep and it’s eight very quality players.”

Further proving Monson’s point, Wisconsin went only seven deep against the Gophers and won by 16 points.

Minnesota should have a greater sense of urgency, though, at this point of the season.

If the Gophers expect to win at least two games in their final four-game stretch, momentum is a necessity.

Minnesota played its most complete game in the Big Ten season on Saturday, and a win against Iowa could push the Gophers over the hump.

“Throughout the first half of the Big Ten season we were the only team that had no momentum,” Hargrow said. “We were the only team that wasn’t on a run, that hadn’t peaked yet.

“Hopefully we can peak now and carry it all the way through the rest of the season.”

Anthony Maggio covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]