Huge week for U men’s hoops starts at Indiana tonight

Todd Zolecki

Players on the Gophers men’s basketball team might say every Big Ten game is important, but the truth is, the next two games for Minnesota are about as big as they get.
The No. 11 Gophers play at No. 15 Indiana tonight and on Saturday host No. 16 Michigan. Those are two teams Minnesota must contend with if it expects to win the Big Ten title.
“This is a big week for us,” Gophers center John Thomas said. “I think the whole team has a sense of that.
“I don’t think we’re real uptight about it. We’re going into it relaxed and play the type of game we play, which is tough, aggressive basketball.”
It has worked so far. Minnesota (13-1) heads into Assembly Hall tonight riding an eight-game winning streak. The Hoosiers (14-2) lost last Saturday to Wisconsin, snapping their own eight-game winning streak.
If the Gophers are to reach win number nine it will take a lot of work. But as intimidating as Assembly Hall can be with Hoosiers coach Bob Knight, five national championship banners hanging from the rafters and crazed Indiana fans decked out in red and white, the Gophers have experienced some success there in the recent past.
Minnesota didn’t play in Bloomington, Ind., last season, but in 1995 won there 64-54. Two years earlier, the Gophers lost 61-57 after Arriel McDonald was called for a five-seconds violation in the game’s closing seconds when he couldn’t pass the ball around a defender.
One reason why Assembly Hall is such a tough place to play is the noise from the crowd. Gophers coach Clem Haskins hopes his team can use the unfriendly atmosphere to its advantage.
“It works both ways,” Haskins said. “When I played, I enjoyed the crowd. The more they booed me, the better I played. Yes, the crowd’s a factor, but it’s good being able to go in and quiet a crowd. At Michigan State (last Saturday) you could hear a pin drop.”
Thomas said it is possible to block out the Assembly Hall crowd.
“Once you go in there you really notice it, but once the game starts, you start blocking all of that out because you have a mission,” Thomas said. “You want to accomplish that mission, and that sea of red doesn’t really affect you.”
A bigger problem for Thomas and his frontcourt mates will be handling the Hoosiers’ big men.
“They have size and we have size,” he said. “It’ll be interesting. They had a battle with Wisconsin and we had a battle with Wisconsin. We’re definitely expecting a battle.”
Indiana’s starting frontcourt stands in at 6-8, 6-9 and 7-0. Haskins said Knight has perhaps the premier center in the nation in freshman Jason Collier.
Collier averages 11 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, complementing junior forward Andrae Patterson, who leads Indiana, averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
“It’s more of a challenge,” Thomas said. “I enjoy a challenge. It’s hard work, but when the night’s through, you get time to relax. I’m always tired afterward. It takes a lot out of you.
Gophers center Trevor Winter hopes he can use his experience to give him an edge over Collier.
“I think we have more experience,” he said. “I think our combination of experience and talent is a little better than theirs. We’re just going to take focus and play disciplined.
“Two wins this week might put us almost in the top five in the nation. It would be a great boost for us. That would be huge. I don’t remember the last time we’ve ever been that high.”
They never have. The last time the Gophers were in the top 10 was in 1993 when they were No. 9 after winning two games in the preseason NIT.
Note: Hoosiers freshman Luke Jimenez from Redwood Falls, Minn., is averaging 2.6 points per game and 12 minutes per game.