Bubble U: Mich. St. now a must-win

But the Gophers have lost five of their last six and the Spartans have won eight-straight regular season games against Minn.

Josh Katzenstein

Tubby Smith hasnâÄôt looked at the bubble predictions or bracketology.

He doesnâÄôt need to read the cockamamie analyses of the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team to know where it stands.

âÄúI would imagine that the way weâÄôve played lately,âÄù MinnesotaâÄôs head coach said Monday, âÄúweâÄôve got to be desperate just to get a win.âÄù

After being ranked as high as No. 14 in the Associated Press poll this season, MinnesotaâÄôs NCAA tournament hopes are dwindling. The Gophers (17-9, 6-8 Big Ten) have lost five out of six games, including two at home, and need to record some signature victories just to make the Big Dance.

The players are aware.

âÄúWeâÄôre thinking about it because we want to make postseason play,âÄù sophomore Rodney Williams said. âÄúWeâÄôre ready for the challenge.âÄù

The next task is tonightâÄôs matchup against Michigan State, a team that has had the GophersâÄô number for a while. The Spartans have won the last eight regular season meetings, with MinnesotaâÄôs last victory coming in 2006 âÄî although the Gophers beat them last year in the Big Ten tournament.

Michigan State (15-11, 7-7) has had its share of adversity this season, stumbling in five of six games before winning two of its last three. But, as always, the Spartans are gearing up to make another postseason run, and the Gophers are hoping to avenge a 71-62 loss in East Lansing, Mich., back on Dec. 31.

âÄúTheyâÄôre probably the most physical team in the conference,âÄù said Trevor Mbakwe, who suffered through foul trouble in the first meeting. âÄúWeâÄôve got to come ready to play. This is a big game for both of us.âÄù

Passing cost the Gophers during the last contest. Minnesota had assists on just nine of 24 buckets while the Spartans had 21-of-24 field goals assisted. The Gophers also had 14 turnovers, six more than Michigan State, which is a problem they have yet to fix âÄî their turnover margin is worst in the Big Ten.

âÄúWeâÄôre playing better. WeâÄôve just got to stop hurting ourselves with the turnovers,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúWe still feel very good about our shot at the tournament.âÄù

That comfort comes from Minnesota having three of its final four games at Williams Arena and one at Northwestern, a team the Gophers beat 81-70 just a month ago. Winning three of those games would give Minnesota a good chance of making the tournament instead of relying on a deep run in the Big Ten tournament.

âÄúWe still fully control our own destiny,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúWe just have to take care of business.âÄù

The Gophers donâÄôt want stress on Selection Sunday, Mbakwe said. The last two seasons Minnesota couldnâÄôt be certain it would make the NCAA tournament until its name was called. The Gophers also donâÄôt wish to travel to Dayton for one of the new play-in games, just to be a No. 11 or 12 seed.

âÄúWe just want to take care of business early so we can have a little bit of rest,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúWeâÄôre all trying to get a big signature win before the tournament starts, and this is where it starts.âÄù