Brutal stretch continues as Gophers try to snap losing skid

by Zach Eisendrath

The Minnesota men’s basketball team isn’t out of the clear just yet.

After a brutal week in which the Gophers lost to the then-No.2 and No. 3 teams in the country, they now must find a way to beat Indiana at Assembly Hall – where the Hoosiers are a perfect 13-0 this season.

“I’m never going to give up on winning,” interim coach Jim Molinari said. “There are some games to be won out there.”

Minnesota (9-18 overall, 3-10 Big Ten) will try to end its season-long, five-game losing streak tonight against Indiana when it travels to Bloomington, Ind. Game time is 6 p.m.

For at least one of the Gophers, the trip to the Hoosier State will provide for a reunion of sorts as junior guard Lawrence McKenzie will be making his first appearance against his former mentor, first-year Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson.

McKenzie played under Sampson for two seasons at Oklahoma and won a Big 12 Championship there before deciding to transfer back home to Minnesota.

Now in a Gophers uniform, McKenzie is averaging a team-high 15.9 points per game and has developed into an All-Big Ten guard according to Molinari.

“I don’t want to take away from the other guards, but I don’t think you can play better than he’s played,” he said. “To be great you’ve got to be complete and you’ve got to be consistent, and I think he’s done that.”

Molinari said part of McKenzie’s development has been the way he has matured to understand the team concept.

No play was more telling of this change than the final offensive possession for Minnesota on Sunday against the Buckeyes.

McKenzie had an open three-point attempt but made the extra pass to sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala – showing how far he’s grown in such a short period of time, Molinari said.

McKenzie’s ability to distribute the ball like a point guard might be crucial for the Gopher’s success, as he might find himself playing that role for the rest of the season.

While Molinari said he would like to put McKenzie at his natural shooting guard position, he might not have that option.

Molinari benched his two point guards, junior Limar Wilson and redshirt freshman Kevin Payton, for most of Sunday’s loss after both struggled. Still, Molinari said he hasn’t given up on the pair.

But if Molinari does pick McKenzie to run his offense, it is likely Gophers fans will see much more of freshman guard Lawrence Westbrook.

Westbrook has played sparingly throughout the season, but Molinari said he was pleased with how hard Westbrook worked against Ohio State and he might see more time as early as tonight.

Westbrook, who led the nation in scoring as a high school junior in Arizona averaging 41 points per game, said he expected to play a bigger role this season for Minnesota.

That hasn’t been the case, however, and Westbrook said it’s been difficult, but he feels confident he still has ample talent to showcase.

“Obviously, it’s been tough,” he said. “I thought it would be a lot different when I came in here but I’ve handled it as professional as I can Ö hopefully things will work out for the best.

“Nobody has seen my ‘A’ game, nowhere close to it,” he said.

And without question, the Gophers will need their ‘A’ game tonight, because besides the Hoosiers’ home-court advantage, they have one of the Big Ten’s best players in junior forward D.J. White.

White, who Molinari said will be an NBA lottery pick whenever he decides to enter the draft, leads Indiana with 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and is part of the reason the Hoosiers (17-8, 7-5) have a legitimate chance of qualifying for the NCAA tournament .

One Minnesota player who could have the task of guarding White is freshman center Bryce Webster.

Webster, who did a respectable job of guarding Ohio State’s Greg Oden on Sunday, said the team can use last week’s difficult stretch to build confidence in the final weeks of the season.

“Both times we played with the teams and we were right there,” he said. “That builds our confidence, but we need to maintain our play throughout the game.”