Minnesota squares off against fellow cellar-dweller

Zach Eisendrath

The way Minnesota’s men’s basketball team has struggled this season, the Gophers are cherishing any moral victories they can find.

However, that doesn’t mean Minnesota isn’t still desperate to snap its five-game losing streak – something the Gophers will try to accomplish when they welcome Penn State to Williams Arena on Saturday. Tip-off is slated for 11:15 a.m.

As Minnesota has had its share of problems on the court lately, interim coach Jim Molinari has repeatedly said he is looking for small moral victories whenever he can find them.

And, according to sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala, at least some players on the team are buying into Molinari’s idea of moral victories.

“That’s all we really can do,” he said. “Take it play-by-play and try to get better that way. We need to take it step-by-step because we aren’t playing the best. “

Moral victories are nice, but leading scorer Lawrence McKenzie, who transferred to the Gophers in hopes of competing for a Big Ten Championship, said wins are his priority. The junior guard acknowledged moral victories help some players gain confidence, but he knows a team is ultimately judged on production.

“I think game-by-game things will get better, but it comes to a point where you want to win games,” he said. “It comes to the point where moral victories aren’t going to be good enough.”

Perhaps the Gophers have their best opportunity to return to the win column is against the Nittany Lions, as Minnesota hits the road – where the Gophers have failed to win in five tries thus far – for two games afterward.

But Minnesota (7-13 overall, 1-5 Big Ten) knows full well it can’t take any opponent for granted after being embarrassed on its home court last Saturday against the only team below them in the standings, Northwestern.

If the Gophers fall short against Penn State, Molinari said it won’t be because Minnesota overlooked the Nittany Lions (10-9, 1-5).

“I think our young men, they’ve done a great job at respecting every opponent,” Molinari said. “So we have great respect for Penn State.”

The Gophers are aware of Penn State for good reason. The most well-known name on the Nittany Lions’ roster is junior guard Geary Claxton, who is fifth in the Big Ten in scoring with 16.5 points per game and leads the league with 7.9 rebounds per game.

Claxton, like many of the team’s guards, has a tremendous ability to post up according to Molinari. But Penn State’s perimeter attack is also concerning. Sophomore guard Danny Morrissey is a 44 percent shooter from three-point range – the fifth-best in the conference.

Point blank, Molinari said his team can’t think about outscoring any opponent and must dig in on the defensive end to have a chance to win, something he felt his team did not do against the Michigan State Spartans.

For now, all Minnesota can do is keep working to change the tide.

The team’s last win came on Jan. 3, and the Gophers have labeled themselves desperate for weeks. That won’t change until Minnesota finds the win column.

“We definitely need a win,” McKenzie said. “But we’re definitely going to keep trying to work hard and keep getting better and continue to stay with our principles.”