Men’s hoops heads into next must-win game

by Brian Hall

Freshman Maurice Hargrow is yawning underneath a hoop in Williams Arena, as is fellow rookie Aaron Robinson five feet away.

Sophomore Michael Bauer is sitting in a front-row seat complaining about an upcoming test.

The signs of a long season for Minnesota’s men’s basketball team are everywhere. But then practice begins and the Gophers resume preparation for the Penn State game only 30 hours away.

Sixth-seed Minnesota (16-11, 9-7 Big Ten) takes on the No. 11 seed Lions (7-20, 3-13) in the opening round of the conference tournament on Thursday. For the first time in its four-year history the tournament is being held at the Conseco Field House in Indianapolis.

The Gophers-Lions winner faces third-seed Illinois Friday.

Minnesota must now play its best basketball of the year every time out, a goal coach Dan Monson feels is attainable.

“By in large we are getting better,” Monson said. “Obviously people want to point to the last 30 seconds of our game against Illinois, but I thought we played our best game of the year the last time out and that is encouraging.”

Heading into Thursday’s matchup, Minnesota doesn’t need to look far for inspiration. If the Gophers win the conference tournament, they’re given dancing shoes.

Anything less puts Minnesota players in front of the television this Sunday hoping for a NCAA berth over banishment to the National Invitational Tournament.

It’s a situation Monson knows well.

“At Gonzaga, the year I went to the Elite Eight we had one way to get into that tournament,” Monson said. “We had to win our league tournament or we would have been in the NIT. The best team I ever coached went to the NIT.”

But the mission this season is more difficult. Securing an NCAA Tournament bid requires four victories in four days, something Monson or his players have never done.

“I would sure like to find out,” Monson said. “I have never had to do it. I have won three before. Two is easy and the third is always an adrenaline rush because it’s the championship game.”

Last season, Iowa became the first team without an opening round bye to win the tournament.

The Hawkeyes were the sixth seed, much like Minnesota this season, and earned the automatic NCAA invitation despite a 7-9 conference record.

Monson doesn’t put much stock into the accomplishments of last year’s sixth seed.

“I don’t think with two minutes to go in a game, the players will be thinking that Iowa did this last year,” Monson said. “We need to worry about ourselves and this year. Let alone what’s happened in the past.”

The recent past comes into play as the Gophers face Penn State for the third time this season.

The Lions were the worst team in the league but Minnesota narrowly escaped Happy Valley with a win less than two weeks ago and took each of the two matchups with Penn State this season.

“We have proven that we can beat Penn State,” Monson said. “If we play well, we have a good opportunity to beat them a third time. If we don’t then were going to be home.

“If you’re consistent then you should be able to beat a team a hundred times in a row if you’re better than they are.”