Finality sets in for Williams, Mbakwe

The Gophers have lost 10 of 15 games entering the Big Ten tournament.

Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe passes Nebraska forward Brandon Ubel and prepares to score on Jan. 29, 2013 at Williams Arena.

Ichigo Takikawa, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe passes Nebraska forward Brandon Ubel and prepares to score on Jan. 29, 2013 at Williams Arena.

by Andrew Krammer

Gophers seniors Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe met after Saturday’s loss at Purdue, mulling over how back-to-back losses ended their once-promising regular season.

They know their next games are their last chance to not only resurrect the Gophers’ season but also raise their stock as professional basketball players.

“We talked about how this will be pretty much where we make our money at,” Williams said.

No. 9 seed Minnesota plays No. 8 seed Illinois on Thursday in the first game of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago. Whether the Gophers win or lose, they’ll have a good chance of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.

But Williams and Mbakwe won’t play another game at Williams Arena or another Big Ten tournament game after this weekend.

“There’s no more ‘We’ll get them next year,’” Williams said.

The Gophers’ back-to-back losses at Nebraska and Purdue capped a tumultuous regular season in which they started at 15-1 and ended with five wins in their past 15 games.

A solemn coach Tubby Smith addressed the media Wednesday and was asked if it was time for the two seniors to step up and seize the moment.

“I hope so,” Smith said. “I’d like to see it. I think they’re trying, giving us their best effort.”

Minnesota on Thursday will face an Illini squad that has been just as unpredictable as the Gophers.

Illinois beat then-No. 1 Indiana at home and lost at Iowa a month later. The Gophers have also upset Indiana and lost at Iowa.

Minnesota has lost eight straight road games, and while the United Center in Chicago is technically a neutral court, the expected majority of Illinois fans should sway the neutrality of the game.

“It’s kind of their home since they’re in Chicago,” sophomore Andre Hollins said. “But it’s one of those games we’ll have to come back for revenge.”

Illinois beat Minnesota at Williams Arena on Feb. 10, making 11 three-pointers.

Illini senior forward Tyler Griffey shot 4-for-7 from beyond the arc, taking advantage of a Gophers post defense that was missing Williams.

Williams is one of the most versatile post defenders the Gophers have. His leaping ability helps him gain ground on opponents quickly.

“I definitely think I can make a difference by getting out and contesting their three-point shots,” Williams said Wednesday. “But we’ll see tomorrow.”

The Gophers have been successful in the Big Ten tournament under Smith.

Smith holds a 7-5 record in the conference tournament. In last season’s second round, then-freshman Andre Hollins led a near-upset over Michigan in overtime.

This season’s big difference is Mbakwe, who’s been Minnesota’s leader through its ups and downs.

“We have to play like our heads are on fire,” Mbakwe said. “We have to be better at punching first rather than having teams hit us first. I think that’s what we haven’t done lately.”

The 24-year-old could only cheer from the bench during last year’s conference tournament as he was sidelined with an anterior cruciate ligament tear.

“We’re not certain to get into the NCAA tournament,” Mbakwe said. “So with these games, we kind of control our destiny.”