Gophers reign over Big Ten

by Todd Zolecki

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The defense is relentless, the press is suffocating, the attitude hasn’t lost an edge and the wins keep piling up. So far at least, the Gophers men’s basketball team has lived up to its preseason expectations and fulfilled coach Clem Haskins’ “Wait Until Next Year” prophecy from a season ago.
Still, despite Minnesota’s top 15 ranking, a 13-1 record and ballooning confidence following two Big Ten victories, players aren’t content. With their eyes set on the Big Ten championship and a high seed in the NCAA tournament, they want to remain focused.
So while the Gophers might be reluctant at times to praise themselves, the opposing coaches who have experienced Minnesota’s deep bench, massive frontcourt and strong guard play will not hesitate.
“They’re a Final Four sleeper,” St. John’s coach Fran Franschilla said Dec. 15 after a 77-39 loss at Williams Arena.
“They take advantage of you in so many different ways,” Mercer coach Bill Hodges said, following a 94-53 loss on New Year’s Eve. “We made a mistake and they took advantage. That’s the sign of an experienced ball club.”
None of that matters of course if the Gophers don’t win late in the season. After the Gophers’ impressive 68-43 victory against Michigan State on Saturday, players were reserved, speaking about their accomplishments, but making it clear that more must be done.
“I’m not satisfied,” Gophers center John Thomas said. “If you want to win, you really have no time to relax.”
That’s good news for Haskins, who searches for his first Big Ten championship in 11 years at Minnesota, and bad news for the rest of the conference.
“We know we’ve got a long way to go if we want to win a Big Ten title,” Haskins said. “We’re driven this year for that goal. We set it for ourselves.”
A berth in the NCAA tournament already seems solidified, barring a massive collapse, but Haskins uses last year’s memory of NCAA tournament rejection to motivate his players.
“Last year we had a good ballclub but we got robbed out of (NCAA) postseason play,” he said. “We won’t see that happen this year.”
And the Gophers don’t just want to make the tournament, perhaps being happy with a No. 10 seed, they want to be at least a top four seed. Thomas said his teammates talk about that “all the time.”
The upcoming week, though, will provide proof of Minnesota’s stock among the nation’s elite. The Gophers play at Indiana on Wednesday and host Michigan on Saturday — two teams always in the race for a Big Ten championship.
If anything makes it plausible that the Gophers will be in the Big Ten title hunt come March it’s their mental toughness. Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett noticed it following his team’s 65-48 loss Thursday at Williams Arena.
“They play as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Bennett said. “They stay together right up at the end. There’s no letdown in their ability to complete the finish.”
Last year in Madison, Wis., the Gophers blew a lead in the game’s final minute and lost to the Badgers in overtime. This time, with Wisconsin threatening late in the game, Minnesota put the Badgers away using a 23-6 run.
“We don’t give up,” Gophers forward Miles Tarver said. “Last year there was a degree of hesitancy, and we second-guessed ourselves when we got into those types of situations. This year it’s totally different. We’re very confident, and we feel we can match up with teams across the country.”
Against the Spartans the Gophers proved they’re not like the Minnesota teams which won regularly at home and folded on the road — the bane of the Gophers existence in the not-so distant past.
“Desire,” Thomas offered as an explanation. “We want to go as far as we can this year.”
If the first two conference games are any indication, defense will carry the Gophers as far as they want to go. Wisconsin shot 38 percent (19-for-50) and the Spartans shot 30 percent (16-for-53) against Minnesota, which uses its bench to keep constant pressure on opposing offenses.
“We’ve preached defense from day one,” Haskins said. “That’s the key. You have to be able to play great defense in the ball game when you go to a half-court situation.”
The Gophers defense is among the stingiest in the Big Ten. They are third in the league in scoring defense, allowing 58.62 points per game and no team holds the opposition to a lower field-goal percentage (.334).
Plus, the Gophers offense is the Big Ten’s best. The Gophers scoring average (84.08 points per game) and field-goal percentage (.501) are No. 1 in the conference.
“We’ve been playing for so long as a team that we know each other,” Gophers center Trevor Winter said. “It’s easy to play when you know what to expect from everyone else. We’re just comfortable. We trust each other.”
##15 Gophers 37 31 — 68
Michigan State 27 16 — 43

Gophers — James 5-6 0-0 10, Jacobson 3-5 0-0 7, J.Thomas 5-12 2-3 12, Jackson 4-8 0-0 8, Harris 3-6 3-7 9, Archambault 0-0 0-0 0, Lewis 4-6 3-4 11, C.Thomas 3-6 1-1 7, Tarver 0-1 0-0 0, Winter 1-2 2-2 4. Totals 28-52 11-17 68.
Michigan State — Smith 1-5 1-2 3, Klein 1-4 0-0 3, Garavaglia 3-7 1-2 7, Weathers 3-10 3-5 10, Cleaves 2-8 0-0 4, Kelley 1-1 0-0 2, Mull 1-6 0-0 2, D.Thomas 0-0 0-0 0, Polonowski 0-2 0-0 0, Peterson 4-8 3-4 12, Granger 0-2 0-0 0, Wiley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 16-53 8-13 43.

Three-point goals — Minnesota 1-6 (Jacobson 1-2, J.Thomas, 0-1, Jackson 0-1, Harris 0-1, Lewis 0-1), Michigan St. 3-12 (Klein 1-2, Peterson 1-2, Weather 1-3, Mull 0-3, Garavaglia 0-1, Cleaves 0-1). Fouled out — None. Rebounds — Minnesota 36 (James 9), Michigan St. 32 (Garavaglia 10). Assists — Minnesota 18 (J.Thomas, Harris 4), Michigan St. 10 (Kelley 3). Total fouls — Minnesota 18, Michigan St. 19. A — 12,443.