Gophers coach Tubby Smith knows the home stretch of his schedule will be difficult, but he doesn't want to talk about any other postseason possibilities besides the NCAA tournament.
last week was the featured speaker at a fundraiser for a Minnesota
high school basketball coach who has cancer. The coach himself lost his oldest sister to the disease just over a year ago.
The resiliency of that basketball coach is what keeps him going.
Although his team faces a situation that doesn't even compare to that coach's struggles, Smith used the word "resiliency" to describe the Gophers. With three out of their final four games on the road, they'll need that and more to earn victories against Indiana
and Ohio State
won't be easy tasks either.
But Smith is so convinced that his Gophers can make the NCAA Tournament, even if they have to win the Big Ten Tournament, that he won't even talk about any other postseason tournaments.
That's because he still believes the Gophers have what it takes to earn their first NCAA berth since 2005. He should know. He's taken 14 consecutive teams to the Big Dance. And he doesn't expect the Gophers to be on the sidelines in March.
G Lawrence Westbrook is barely six-feet tall. But he plays with a big heart. Against Penn State Feb. 24, he found himself matched up against 6-foot-6 F David Jackson. He held his own and scored 15 points during that game. He's averaging eight points and 3.2 rebounds per game and proving that even though Tubby Smith is bringing in a group of bigger guards next season, he's ready to lead the way in the coming years.
G Lawrence McKenzie tied the Gophers' record for 3-pointers at Williams Arena with seven against Michigan Feb. 21. He also scored a total of 26 points. Tubby Smith has been looking for a player to play under control while under pressure. He's found one in McKenzie.
After using more lineups than a struggling TV network, Tubby Smith has finally found one that looks as though it will work for the duration of the season and even in the postseason. G Al Nolen is now the starter at point guard, a move that allows G Lawrence McKenzie to play on the wing, where he's more comfortable. Throw in G Lawrence Westbrook, and the Gophers have a three-guard lineup that's worked in the last two games in their favor.
C Jon Williams has been criticized by his coaches at times for not being tough enough. At 6-9, 285 pounds, he is expected to impose his will in the post. Over the last two games, he's done that for the Gophers. Against Michigan Feb. 21, he had seven points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes. And against Penn State Feb. 24, he scored six points and had three rebounds in eight minutes of action.
Minnesota is shooting 45.3 percent from the field. That's a decent percentage for a team with not much of a post presence. Their problem all season has been, however, that they have a tendency to start too slowly and not shoot well until the second half of games.
G Blake Hoffarber is no longer an anonymous player in the Big Ten. His 3-point shooting prowess (46.4 percent) has made him one of the more feared perimeter players in the league. But that means teams are focusing on him when he's in the game. The freshman has still managed to average nine points per game, although his numbers have been down since conference play began.
IN FOCUS: If the Gophers have any chance to jump onto the NCAA Tourney bubble, they'll have to beat Purdue on the road Feb. 27. That's a task that even Wisconsin couldn't handle. But it's a must-win matchup for the Gophers. Purdue is a young, confident team that has taken the Big Ten by storm. But if they're not expecting much of a game and the Gophers give them just that, it could be Upset City for the Boilermakers and a surprising quality win for Minnesota.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Dan Coleman, G Lawrence McKenzie, C Spencer Tollackson, G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Damian Johnson.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We did what we had to do to win the ballgame. Even though it wasn't pretty." — Tubby Smith after a 75-68 win over Penn State Feb. 24.
Minnesota 56, Wisconsin 65
Minnesota 69, Michigan 60
Minnesota 75, Iowa 68
at Purdue, Wednesday, Feb. 27.
vs. Ohio State, Saturday, March 1.
at Indiana, Wednesday, March 5.
at Illinois, Saturday, March 8.