The fact that February is the shortest month of the year might be a mixed blessing for the Gophers.
For Minnesota (14-8, 5-7 Big Ten), the March 4-7 conference tournament will give the team an opportunity to build momentum for postseason play. And with only four games remaining, the Gophers have found themselves in the difficult position of having to prove their worthiness for NCAA tournament play.
“This time of the year, you have to be playing great and consistent basketball in order to win ball games,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “We have our work cut out for us these next few games.”
And while Haskins remained confident that his team will get recognition for NCAA postseason play, he made it clear that playing in the National Invitation Tournament — which the Gophers won last year — is no small feat.
“There is nothing wrong with playing in the NIT,” he said. “I think it was a great honor to win it last year.”
Incidentally, it was Penn State (10-12, 2-10), that played the Gophers last March for the NIT title. The Lions, who will play host to the Gophers, are a longshot for any tournament this season.
However, with Minnesota’s road woes still a major area of concern, Penn State is not a team to be taken lightly. With shooters like guards Danny Earl, Joe Crispin and Titus Ivory, the Lions have found scoring complements to center Calvin Booth, one of the premier inside players in the conference.
Beating the Lions on their home court could give Minnesota the boost it needs to finish the season strong, especially since the team only has one more game at Williams Arena.
“The only thing we need is confidence and mental toughness to win on the road,” assistant coach Bobby Jones said.
The key matchup is between center Joel Przybilla and Booth. In their last meeting on Jan. 11, Przybilla effectively neutralized the lanky Booth in the game’s crucial minutes and had his highest offensive output of the season, scoring 17 points.
Since then, Przybilla has gone through a prolonged freshman slump, struggling to get his offensive game back on track. Against the Lions, Przybilla will be instrumental in containing Booth on the defensive end while keeping Penn State honest with some buckets of his own.
“Joel probably had his best performance of the year against Penn State,” Haskins said. “We need that type of performance from him in order to win.”
Look for Minnesota to mix in some double teams against Booth, using forwards Miles Tarver and Antoine Broxsie in rotation to help Przybilla.