Penn State game looking critical for Gophers

Anthony Maggio

Maybe the trouble stems from homesickness. Perhaps jetlag has caused the problem.

But whatever ailment has caused Minnesota’s men’s basketball team to start its season 0-4 on the road could be cured by Wednesday’s trip to Penn State.

The Lions (5-11, 0-5 Big Ten) are tied for last in the conference with Northwestern and haven’t won a game in nearly a month.

“Penn State is a must win situation for us,” guard Kevin Burleson said. “We’re going in thinking we’re going to win.”

The Gophers winning mentality is something that’s been missing of late, as Minnesota’s confidence has wavered since its rocky start to the Big Ten season.

When the Gophers (10-6, 2-3) started the season with a four-game winning streak, they went into every game feeling like the target.

But forward Michael Bauer admitted that in a few games, including last week at Michigan, his squad felt like the underdog.

“If you feel that you have an edge on a team you’ll have the confidence to go out and play,” Bauer said. “In our little streak where we didn’t play as well I think our confidence was one of the problems. We need to get back to being very confident and

knowing we can play with anybody and beat anybody.”

A solid performance at Penn State and a second straight victory – which would be Minnesota’s first back-to-back conference wins this season – could provide Minnesota the dose of optimism that the doctor ordered.

But the Gophers haven’t shown the necessary swagger on the road this season to pull out a win away from Williams Arena.

“It takes a certain amount of concentration to play basketball and it’s hard to sustain it for two hours,” coach Dan Monson said. “When you’re at home and lose it you have encouragement to get on track. When you’re on the road you have to mentally do it yourself.”

Thus far, Bauer is the only player who has shown he can play with consistent energy.

Bauer has been the floatation device for the Gophers every time they seem to be sinking, but more players must follow suit on a consistent basis to keep Minnesota’s head above water.

“The energy our team plays with is either spawned from me or I try to help everybody get it going,” Bauer said. “We’ve got other guys who can do it, but that’s my trademark. I take pride in that and try to be a leader in that area.”

Bauer has started the last three games, which he said has helped him in his attempt to energize his teammates.

And a spirited beginning to Wednesday night’s game could be key for the Gophers.

Monson wants Minnesota to dictate the pace of the game like it did in the second half of the Northwestern game in order to deflate the crowd and keep Penn State out of its comfort zone.

If the Gophers win, it will increase their win streak over Penn State to four games.

But if Minnesota loses, conference title aspirations – along with those of an NCAA tournament – go from serious to critical condition.

Injury update

Guard Brent Lawson will not play Wednesday because of a sprained left knee. Monson said Lawson is out until he gets fitted for a brace.

Forward Stan Gaines, who played sparingly Saturday after missing the Michigan game with a strained hamstring, sat out practice Monday and saw limited action Tuesday. Monson said Gaines will likely try to play.

Swingman Steve Esselink, who saw four minutes versus Northwestern after sitting out the previous two games with a broken pinky finger on his non-shooting hand, will be in action Wednesday night.

“With Steve it is just a matter of getting timing and confidence back,” Monson said.

Anthony Maggio covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]