Gophers talking about a top-five Big Ten finish after hanging tough early on

by Bob Wothe

Just more than a quarter of the way through its season, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team thinks it’s time to raise its expectations.

Even though the team has professed to being downright ugly in most of its wins and suffered through a three-game losing streak to major conference opponents Alabama, Oklahoma and Florida State, Minnesota (5-3) was not run off the floor in any of them.

And that’s why the team says a top-five Big Ten finish is not out of the question.

“That Nebraska game where we came back after being down 19-5 – that showed our true heart,” freshman Spencer Tollackson said. “I think it’s realistic to think that we can finish in the top five of the Big Ten if we can limit other teams’ runs to six or seven and maximize ours.”

Indeed, giving up big runs has been a problem for Minnesota in two of its losses. Minnesota led Oklahoma in the first half before falling into a drought that brought just nine points in the first 12 minutes of the second half.

It was more of the same just three days later against Florida State, a team Minnesota dominated for 32 minutes before falling into the same type of back-breaking funk, scoring just six points in the last eight minutes of the contest.

But, as Tollackson said, the Gophers are positive because their defense has keyed large runs in the other direction, something senior Brent Lawson said he hasn’t seen with past Gophers squads.

“One of our most important strengths is that we’re not going to break like other years,” Lawson said. “Nobody quit (against Central Michigan), and our defense has the ability to get stops in big situations this year.”

The Gophers needed an 18-0 run to put the Chippewas away Saturday after trailing by six in the second half. That game followed a 15-0 spurt against the Cornhuskers on Wednesday.

But as positive as the comeback wins over Nebraska and Central Michigan have been for Minnesota, it was a loss that made several players believe they’re truly capable of making some noise.

Minnesota’s losing effort against now-No. 18 Alabama might have been the biggest reason players and coaches alike now think it’s realistic to believe this team can compete in the Big Ten.

The Gophers held a first-half lead and stayed close to the Tide all game, closing to within two at 68-66 with just 1:30 left on the clock.

Though Minnesota lost 78-72, the team took a lot away from that game.

“Alabama was really important for us as a team,” Lawson said. “It gave us confidence to compete so well against such a high-caliber team.”

Even coach Dan Monson said it’s not unreasonable to think the Gophers could defy preseason predictions and finish in the Big Ten’s top five.

“I think it’s definitely possible to finish in the top five of the Big Ten,” Monson said. “Our goal is to get to the level of play that Illinois is at, even though we don’t have the players that they do.”