Gophers trying for second Big Ten win as they square off against conference bottom feeder

Minnesota and the Wildcats are stastically the two worst defenses in the Big Ten.

Zach Eisendrath

After losing its last three Big Ten games, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team is desperate for a win.

Fortunately, the Gophers have an excellent opportunity to rejuvenate their season Saturday afternoon when they host conference bottom-feeder Northwestern at 1:30 p.m. at Williams Arena.

While Minnesota has had its share of struggles this season, at least the Gophers can be thankful they have a conference win on their resume – something the Wildcats lack after five Big Ten games.

“We’re looking forward to them,” sophomore swingman Brandon Smith said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs so far this season, but we need a big win and we’re going to work hard for it.”

Working hard is something the team members said they did not do in the opening minutes of its 64-52 loss against Illinois on Wednesday.

After spotting the Illini 13 points to start the game, the Gophers (7-11 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) ended up giving away 38 points in the first half -something especially discouraging to interim coach Jim Molinari.

Although Molinari has preached defense from day one, and has seen some improvement, the team he has taken over is still last in the conference in points allowed, giving up an average of 65.2 per game.

On the other hand, one of Northwestern’s few strengths is defense. The Wildcats (10-8, 0-5) rank second in the conference, allowing only 57.4 per contest.

A large reason for Minnesota’s poor defensive performance, however, was due to self-inflicted mistakes. The Gophers had very little half-court defensive opportunities as the Illini transitioned numerous times off Minnesota turnovers.

Minnesota redshirt freshman forward Damian Johnson – known particularly for his energy – said a first half like the one the Gophers played against Illinois won’t get Minnesota into the win column.

“The first half was unacceptable,” he said.

“I think we didn’t have energy at the beginning. We came out lackadaisical. We picked it up in the second half but it was a little too late.”

The Gophers and Northwestern are 10th and 11th in the conference in scoring offense, respectively, – major reasons why they are the worst two teams in the Big Ten.

Minnesota has particularly had trouble finding the net without the services of junior center Spencer Tollackson, as opponents have made stopping junior guard Lawrence McKenzie and junior forward Dan Coleman a priority.

And after getting almost nothing from their bench as of late, the Gophers should be thrilled to have Smith back.

Due to a violation of team rules, Smith was forced to sit out three games, but was the bright spot in Minnesota’s loss on Wednesday night.

Molinari said he thought Smith was aggressive during his time on the floor, something Minnesota was not in the first half.

“I think we were over-matched athletically, and Brandon has done everything well since he has come back,” Molinari said.

The seven points Smith scored in a three-minute stretch led to a strong second-half rally, and should be especially encouraging to a team desperate for new scorers.

Smith was less than shy about what he can bring to his team from here on out, saying he can be the scoring threat the team has missed since Tollackson was injured.

“I feel like that’s a role I can take on,” he said. “I know there is a lot of extra stuff I’ll have to do now that Spencer’s out, unfortunately.

“Now I’m going to have to put a lot more on my back.”