Men’s basketball is No. 3 in AP poll

Todd Zolecki

Last week’s speculation that the Gophers men’s basketball team could move up to No. 1 in the national rankings proved to be untrue Monday when the team earned a No. 3 spot in the Associated Press poll.
A week of upsets to Kansas, Wake Forest and Kentucky left the Gophers — the only top four team that didn’t lose last week — in position for the No. 1 slot. But with Kansas’ and Wake Forest’s wins Sunday, that prospect changed.
Still, the Gophers matched their highest ranking in program history. Minnesota ranked third in 1964 and 1973. The team is also No. 3 in the USA Today/CNN coaches poll.
The Gophers will have to prove themselves this week in back-to-back road games against Purdue and Iowa — games which also carry Big Ten title implications. The two teams trail Minnesota in the conference standings — Purdue by 1 1/2 games and Iowa by two games.
Minnesota hasn’t won at Purdue since 1982, which was the last time the Gophers won the Big Ten championship.
“For us to stay in it we need to get a split,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said last Wednesday after the Gophers 85-70 win against Penn State. “We’re going to try and win two, but boy, if we get a split we’re still in this thing. That’s the key. If we do that, we have a great shot at winning the Big Ten title.”
The Boilermakers, three-time defending Big Ten champions, have won six of their last seven games. Their only loss came Jan. 25 against Minnesota, a 91-68 defeat. Purdue is looking to defend its title again.
“We’ve got the heavyweight belt — we’ve had it the last three years — and it’s ours until somebody takes it away from us,” Purdue coach Gene Keady said. “We’ve started winning and some of our young kids are playing a little beyond their years.”
Jackson for All-America?
Ever since league games started, Gophers guard Bobby Jackson has heard praise from Haskins and other Big Ten coaches.
In conference play, the senior is averaging 16.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. With those numbers, Jackson is making a strong case for himself as Big Ten Player of the Year.
“He’s playing even better than he did last year,” Penn State coach Jerry Dunn said. “He’s an All-Big Ten player.”
The Gophers men’s media relations office thinks Jackson can do better. It began last week by sending out leaflets to those who vote for the All-America team. It touts Jackson as an “All-America candidate” and lists his accomplishments.
The mailings will continue once a week until the end of the season.
Minnesota hasn’t had an All-America player since Trent Tucker in 1982.
Fast break points
ù Haskins, on the play of Sam Jacobson, who is averaging 17.3 points the past eight games and is making 50.9 percent (55-for-108) of his shots from the floor: “Sam is shooting the ball extremely well for us, and we’ve got to have that kind of shooting in order to win.”
ù Northwestern coach Ricky Byrdsong was fired Monday but will remain with the team until the end of the season.
Byrdsong, 40, did not attend the news conference but in a statement said he would let his players decide if he should leave before the season is over.
“We are concerned with the lack of progress the men’s basketball team has made in the last three years,” Northwestern athletics director Rick Taylor said.
So far this season, the Wildcats (6-16) are last in the Big Ten with a 1-10 conference mark.
ù The Hoosiers, after posting a 5-6 Big Ten record, dropped out of the Top 25 poll Monday for the first time this season.
— Information from the Associated Press newswire was used in this notebook.