Late-charging Gophers seek revenge at Mich.

Three-game losing streak to Wolverines is latest obstacle to tournament hopes.

Gophers senior forward Damian Johnson (34) and sophomore center Ralph Sampson III fight for the loose ball against Michigan guard Stu Douglass (1) during the first half of Minnesotas 71-63 loss at Williams Arena.

Jules Ameel

Gophers senior forward Damian Johnson (34) and sophomore center Ralph Sampson III fight for the loose ball against Michigan guard Stu Douglass (1) during the first half of Minnesota’s 71-63 loss at Williams Arena.

by Marco LaNave

As the calendar turns to March, anticipation grows for the NCAA menâÄôs basketball tournament later this month. Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away, and the Gophers still have work to do if they hope to secure a spot. But head coach Tubby Smith said itâÄôs not hard for his team to concentrate on the next game. âÄúI think our guys are focused on playing well,âÄù he said. âÄúIâÄôm sure in the back of their heads theyâÄôre hoping, like everyone else is, that we can get a chance to play [in the tournament], but youâÄôve got to make it happen by winning.âÄù The Gophers (17-11, 8-8 Big Ten) probably canâÄôt secure an at-large tournament bid with anything they do in their final two regular-season games Tuesday night at Michigan and Sunday at home against Iowa. They could, however, fall into a scenario of needing to win the Big Ten tournament March 11-14 to make the Big Dance. âÄúWe still know that if we win out and we do good in the [Big Ten] tournament, weâÄôll be able to get to the [NCAA] tournament,âÄù freshman forward Rodney Williams said Saturday after the Gophers won at Illinois for the first time officially in 32 years. The teamâÄôs struggles against Michigan hardly date back that far, but that doesnâÄôt reduce the pressure for when the Gophers visit the Wolverines (13-15, 6-10) at Crisler Arena on Tuesday night. Minnesota has lost three straight to Michigan, including a 71-63 defeat at Williams Arena Feb. 11. Wolverines forward DeShawn Sims made 10 of 12 second-half field goals and scored 27 points in that game, and he will be a major focus for the Gophers defense Tuesday night. âÄúHopefully we can mix up our defenses to try to keep them off balance, but it usually comes down to a one-on-one; do you have the personnel to limit his touches and contest his shots?âÄù Smith said. Smith said Sims even presents challenges for the GophersâÄô two best defenders. He has the quickness to beat Gophers sophomore center Ralph Sampson III and the bulk to overpower senior forward Damian Johnson, Smith said. âÄúHeâÄôs so mobile âĦ and with his size and athleticism âĦ it makes it pretty difficult for a matchup for us,âÄù Smith said. The Gophers have had better defensive showings since switching to a zone defense the last four games. TheyâÄôve held three opponents below 33 percent field-goal shooting. Michigan coach John Beilein said MinnesotaâÄôs new zone has been effective. He also commended the recent play of Gophers sophomore point guard Devoe Joseph, who has averaged 12 points, four assists and four rebounds per game since a four-point, four-turnover outing against the Wolverines. âÄúHe is really comfortable; thatâÄôs made a big difference, I think,âÄù Beilein said. JosephâÄôs miss on a last-second shot against No. 3 Purdue last Wednesday is all that keeps the Gophers from carrying a four-game winning streak into Tuesday. But the recent stretch has still brought them back on to the NCAA tournament bubble. ESPNâÄôs Joe Lunardi, who compiles a projected NCAA tournament bracket throughout the season, put Minnesota as one of the âÄúFirst Four OutâÄù of the tournament field in a bracket published Monday. With losses to Northwestern (currently seventh in the Big Ten), Michigan (eighth) and Indiana (tied for 10th), the Gophers canâÄôt afford another loss to the Wolverines or to Iowa. âÄúI donâÄôt know that weâÄôve done our work [to get into the tournament],âÄù Smith said. âÄúYou certainly always hold out hope that you can get yourself in a position to do that, and thatâÄôs about it.âÄù