But Tubby Smith has instilled a sense of confidence in the Gophers unseen in recent years. After a near-win at Michigan State on Jan. 5, Minnesota blew out Northwestern (Jan. 9) and overcame a 16-point deficit to win at Penn State (Jan. 12).
Minnesota has been tossed into that infamous what-if category that starts brewing around this time of the season. What if the Gophers can pull off a few more big road wins and continue to play well at home? What if their stud freshmen, Al Nolen — the Big Ten's leader in steals — and Blake Hoffarber — the Big Ten's leader in three-point field-goal percentage — continue to exceed all preseason expectations?
Is this team ready for the tournament?
These questions surround the team because Minnesota no longer considers itself to be a bottom-feeder in the Big Ten. And with a national championship coaching staff — assistant coach and former Kentucky point guard Saul Smith started wearing his 1998 title ring for good luck — the Gophers expect a shot at the NCAA tourney.
Tubby Smith said his team has learned to employ its confidence at the right moments. In one such case, Nolen hit three huge free throws at Penn State with seconds on the clock to win the game for Minnesota, which was 12-3 through 15 games.
It takes poise to hit free throws like that. But Tubby Smith said he's not surprised. He urges his team to play and act like winners, which is why he's got a shot at going to the tournament for the 15th season in a row.
"The first thing I tell our team is that we've gotta talk, walk, act, practice like champions — nothing is too great," he said. "You've gotta dream big dreams."
For the first time this season, Tubby Smith inserted sophomore forward Damian Johnson, the team's leader in blocks, into the team's starting lineup at Penn State on Jan. 12. Junior forward Jamal Abu-Shamala had been the starter at the "three" spot since the team's fifth game, but he hurt his hip in the team's home win against Northwestern (Jan. 9). Truth be told, however, Abu-Shamala's numbers (4.5 points per game) have been down, which was probably a factor in the switch.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I mean, everyone knows about him." — Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis said about Minnesota freshman guard Blake Hoffarber before the Gophers' freshman cut up the Nittany Lions with 19 points on Jan. 12.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Dan Coleman, F Damian Johnson, C Spencer Tollackson, G Lawrence McKenzie, G Lawrence Westbrook. Key Subs — G Al Nolen; G Blake Hoffarber.
IN FOCUS: Minnesota is playing well at a time when other Big Ten squads are clearly struggling. Michigan State, the No. 6 squad that lost to lowly Iowa Jan. 12, proved that the league has plenty of parity. Minnesota nearly beat Michigan State at East Lansing Jan. 5 by playing aggressively against Drew Neitzel, who only scored four points. And they also introduced Breslin Arena's crowd to the art of the foul, drawing 18 infractions, including a couple of key charges, on the Spartans. And Raymar Morgan (31 points) and Kalin Lucas (17 points) were the only two double-digit scorers for Michigan State. If Minnesota can trap and double Morgan effectively, which is easier said than done, it has a good shot at walking away with a win. But the Gophers can't fall behind by 13 points the way they did Jan. 5 if they expect to leave Williams Arena with a victory.
Minnesota 59, Michigan State 65
Minnesota 82, Northwestern 63
Minnesota 76, Penn State 73
vs. Indiana, Thursday, Jan. 17
vs. Michigan State, Sunday, Jan. 20
at Ohio State, Saturday, Jan. 26
at Michigan, Thursday, Jan. 31