Gophers excited for challenge of Big Ten Tournament

Minnesota has one last opportunity to bolster its resume before Selection Sunday.

<p>Senior Jordan Murphy jumps to dunk the ball on Thursday, Feb. 21 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The Gophers lost to Michigan 69-60.</p>

Elle Moulin

Senior Jordan Murphy jumps to dunk the ball on Thursday, Feb. 21 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The Gophers lost to Michigan 69-60.

Nick Jungheim

After concluding the regular season with a 19-12 record (9-11 Big Ten), the Gophers are confident that they’ve done enough to hear their name called among the NCAA Tournament’s field of 68 teams.

Still, a strong showing at the Big Ten Tournament this week would make the selection committee’s decision much easier.

Minnesota’s conference record earned them the No. 7 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which is taking place this Wednesday through Sunday at the United Center in Chicago.

“A lot of great memories in conference tournaments,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “It’s a fun time of year.  But there’s nothing better than conference tournaments because you play teams that you’ve played multiple times.”

The first test for the Gophers comes Thursday evening against No. 10 seed Penn State. The teams met once during the regular season, a 65-64 Minnesota victory on Jan. 19 in which the Gophers survived a go-ahead shot attempt from Penn State junior Lamar Stevens which rimmed out at the final buzzer.

At the time, Penn State was winless in conference play, but the Nittany Lions have since turned things around. They have won seven of their last 10 contests, with the three defeats coming by a combined 20 points. That stretch includes upset victories over ranked opponents Michigan and Maryland.

“[We’re] excited about playing Penn State,” Pitino said. “[They’re a] really, really good team; they’ve been playing very well. It was a war at our place [and] came down to the last possession, so we know we’ll get their best shot.”

For the Gophers to advance beyond the first round, they will need another strong performance from junior Amir Coffey. In his last three games, Coffey has averaged nearly 29 points per game and received recognition as Big Ten Player of the Week the past two weeks.

Named third team All-Big Ten by coaches and media, Coffey rose to the challenge of becoming the Gophers’ premier guard this season. The team has relied heavily on Coffey, who has played at least 39 minutes in each of the last four regular season games. According to Coffey, he’s not worried about the strain of extra minutes and is available for as long as the team needs him down the stretch.

“I feel like once you get out there it all feels the same,” Coffey said. “I could play 20 minutes and be sore the next day. I just play the game, get recovery and get ready for the next one.”

In addition to Coffey, Minnesota will count on its other superstar, senior Jordan Murphy, to continue his stellar play in the postseason. Named first team All-Big Ten by the media and second team by coaches, Murphy finished second in the nation with 21 double-doubles and ranks second in Big Ten history with 1,272 rebounds.

Having cemented his legacy as one of the best players in Gophers history, Murphy now hopes to end his career with a successful postseason. After losing in the first round last year, Murphy says he’s been thinking about returning to the Big Ten Tournament ever since.

“I’ve definitely been looking forward to it,”  Murphy said. “Just something that I’ve been thinking about pretty much every night, getting back to the Big Ten Tournament, redeeming last year, the way we ended the season.”

The first game against Penn State is scheduled to tip off at 6 p.m. on Thursday.  If Minnesota wins, it will play at the same time on Friday against No. 2 seed Purdue, the team that the Gophers upset 73-69 on Tuesday, Mar. 5.