Minnesota Fighting For NCAA Bid

Minnesota's strong play on the road in the Big Ten Conference builds the hope for landing an NCAA Tournament bid. After losing Trevor Mbakwe early in the season, the Gophers' season looked lost due to a roster filled with 10 underclassmen.

But against all odds, the Gophers have shined during league play, especially on the road. The Gophers entered the Michigan State contest on Jan. 25 sporting a two-game road winning streak in conference games, defeating Indiana and Penn State, while losing in double overtime at Illinois and by five points at Michigan. Minnesota has four league road games left -- Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin -- and showed that it can conceivably win them all after opening strong on the road in the early part of the season.

"We know that when we're on the road, we've got to come out and play a lot harder because we know we've got not only the team we're playing against but basically the whole stadium against us," Minnesota junior forward Rodney Williams said. "So when we come out, we've got to come out with fire, we've got to play a lot harder. Not necessarily harder than we play when we're at home, but we've got to play with more poise. Because the environment's a lot more hostile."

Ralph Sampson III echoed Williams' words.

"I think now that we have a couple of away games under our belt, it definitely helps with the youth on the team," Sampson said. "[It] almost kind of helps us shake off the losing streak we had before."

Although Minnesota didn't extend the streak to three straight road wins after suffering a 68-52 loss at Michigan State, the Gophers played solid until the five minutes when the Spartans took over and handed coach Tom Izzo his 400th career victory.

The Gophers haven't won at Michigan State since winning back-to-back seasons in 1996 and 1997, but those wins were vacated because of an academic fraud scandal. So technically, the Gophers haven't won in East Lansing since 1990. But Minnesota can avenge its frustrating loss at Illinois when they return home for the Jan. 28 contest.

The Gophers should've won the game in regulation, but made too many late mistakes and allowed the Illini to crawl back into the game. The Illini kicked game off a string of four straight losses for the Gophers before the three-game winning streak was halted by Michigan State.

Minnesota (15-6, 3-5) will find itself facing an Illini team struggling after dealing with their own inconsistency issues. The Gophers don't want to lose a second game this season to the Illini considering both teams might be fighting for one of the last NCAA tourney based on some sluggish play for both squads.

The Gophers weren't able to neutralize Illini sophomore center Meyers Leonard in the first contest. The 7-foot-1 Leonard finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. The Gophers have to play solid perimeter defense in order to keep the Illini's cache of three-pointers from having a big game. The Gophers might be able to take advantage inside with Sampson and Rodney Williams in getting Leonard in foul trouble.

NOTES, QUOTES

Sampson still hampered by ankle injury

--Senior C Ralph Sampson III is still nursing a sore left ankle which he injured in November. Sampson's recent play is evident that the ankle is affecting his play. Sampson finished with 10 points and two rebounds in Minnesota's 68-52 defeat at Michigan State on Jan. 25. The 6-foot-11 Sampson has scored 10 points in each of his last two games after netting a combined 28 points in a five-game span. But Sampson's rebounding hasn't been up his the level that he showed in December and after a 10-rebound effort at Michigan on Jan. 1. Sampson has grabbed more than six rebounds just once in his last six games. He has an embarrassing number of low rebound games, claiming his sixth two-rebound or less performance of the season in the Michigan State loss.

Before the Michigan State game, Sampson admitted his ankle is bothering him.

"I'm definitely still not as explosive as I was at the beginning," Sampson said. "These last two weeks, I still wake up, and it's stiff. It's a struggle to get through.

--Junior F Rodney Williams is one of the biggest beneficiaries from Trevor Mbakwe's season-ending injury. The 6-foot-7, 205-pound Williams entered the season averaging 4.2 points in his freshman season and 6.8 points last year. But Williams isn't shy taking the scoring burden, hoisting shots with regularity -- and hitting them. He scored eight of Minnesota's first 10 points in a Jan. 25 loss at Michigan State. Williams opened with two three-pointers and made a career high third trey late in the loss. The last time Williams made more than one three-pointer in a game was in a win at Michigan on Jan. 22, 2011. Williams entered the MSU contest with seven three-pointers in 20 attempts, but now raised that total to 10 threes for the season. Williams finished with a team-high 15 points against the Spartans, marking his seventh straight game with a minimum of 11 points.

BY THE NUMBERS: 30-for-52 -- The cumulative shooting numbers by Minnesota's starting lineup in Sunday's 75-52 win over Northwestern; a .577 percentage.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Being aggressive and just going at teams. We started out slow and were playing out of the loop. We had to start playing to win and going out and taking teams down like we're supposed to do and not letting them attack us first." -- G Joe Coleman on what has changed with his team, leading to three straight wins after an 0-4 start in the Big Ten.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAMES:

--vs. Illinois, Jan. 28

KEY MATCHUPS: The Gophers opened their Big Ten season with a double-overtime loss to Illinois, despite 23 points and nine rebounds by Ralph Sampson III. The Illini have a balanced attack led by guards Brandon Paul and D. J. Richardson.

ON THE SPOT: Junior forward Andre Ingram has to provide more scoring and better play off the bench. At 6-foot-7 and 213 pounds, Ingram plays a vital role in helping provide key minutes to help the frontcourt starters get a short break. But Ingram, a Minneapolis native, scored two points and grabbed one rebound in Minnesota's loss at Michigan State Jan. 25. Ingram, in his first season at Minnesota after two years playing for Butler Community College in Kansas, has not scored more than three points in his last 11 games played, and picked up four rebounds in his last six games.

FUTURES MARKET: Freshman guard Joe Coleman continued his strong play as a starter, leading the Gophers to their big win over Northwestern. He led five players in double figures with 16 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals.

PLAYER NOTES

--Junior F Rodney Williams had another strong all-around game in the Jan. 22 win over Northwestern. He scored 11 points, but also had four steals, three rebounds, three blocked shots and two assists. He leads the active Gophers in both scoring and rebounding, at 10.7 points and 5.8 boards per game.

--Updating the Gophers on the medical front: the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported injured star Trevor Mbakwe is still attending classes and hopes to get a sixth year, which the school will apply for soon; and sophomore center Mo Walker, who hasn't played since December, 2010 because of a knee injury and reconstructive surgery, will redshirt this season and still have three years remaining.

--Nine different Gophers have started at least four games so far this season.


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