Gophers excited for Wisconsin test

Westbrook hopes to shine like he did in both of last season’s games.

Gophers excited for Wisconsin test

Marco LaNave

As the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team tries to pull itself out of a slump, the men are looking to their biggest rivalry to reignite their spirits and their season. Minnesota (14-10 overall, 5-7 Big Ten) will play the first of two remaining home games against ranked opponents when it faces No. 14 Wisconsin (19-6, 9-4) on Thursday night at Williams Arena . The Gophers havenâÄôt beat a ranked Big Ten team this season and have lost six of their last eight games. Head coach Tubby Smith said after a deflating 77-74 overtime loss on Sunday at Northwestern that his team has lost focus during stretches of games. He is expecting that to change, but not just because of the game against the Badgers. âÄúEvery game should be a game played like itâÄôs your last game, your first game or your only game, and when itâÄôs not, thereâÄôs not much coaches can do,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWeâÄôve got to step it up and find a way to play better.âÄù Lawrence Westbrook, who scored 22 points against Northwestern after Smith said he wanted the senior guard to play better defense to earn his playing time, has the most reason of any player to be excited about facing Wisconsin. Westbrook scored a career-high 29 points in MinnesotaâÄôs overtime win in Madison last season and scored the final 10 points in a come-from-behind victory over Wisconsin at Williams Arena. âÄú[In] practice [Wednesday], Westbrook was going crazy scoring-wise,âÄù said senior forward Damian Johnson, who scored 11 points in each game against the Badgers last season. âÄúThis is just a team that he loves playing against.âÄù The GophersâÄô first official two-game sweep of Wisconsin since 1992 gives a little confidence to a team in need of more, Johnson said. âÄúI donâÄôt think guys are as confident as they should be,âÄù Johnson said. That was the subject of âÄúsomething like a playersâÄô meetingâÄù the team had after the loss to Northwestern, Johnson said. âÄúI think guys are going to play a little differently,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúI think guys are going to have more energy and more enthusiasm.âÄù The annual intensity of the rivalry will have to be completely packed into Thursday nightâÄôs game at Williams Arena, which will be the only meeting between the two teams unless they meet in the Big Ten tournament, which now might be the GophersâÄô most realistic chance of reaching the NCAA tournament. âÄúGuys [have] ability; weâÄôve had stretches where weâÄôve played like [a top Big Ten team],âÄù Johnson said. Johnson pointed out that, before No. 4 Purdue’s win at No. 9 Ohio State on Wednesday night, Minnesota was the only Big Ten team to have defeated the Buckeyes since star Evan Turner returned to the team in early January. The GophersâÄô 73-62 home win over the Buckeyes on Jan. 9 stands as the teamâÄôs last complete performance, Johnson said. âÄúWe played that game from start to finish,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúWe need to start playing more games that way.âÄù The Gophers have found the end of games the most troublesome this season, with seven losses by seven points or fewer. âÄúEspecially when you know that [the end of games have] cost you games or youâÄôre struggling with that part right now, you pay special attention to it,âÄù said sophomore guard Devoe Joseph, who scored seven points in overtime against Northwestern and 15 points in the second half and overtime of a loss at Indiana on Jan. 17. Both Smith and the players have said the team needs to play with more effort. âÄúAll the games weâÄôve lost, we got outworked,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúI think weâÄôve just got to come in and play harder.âÄù