Early in the Big Ten schedule, the Gophers were needing younger players to save the day, but lately the senior class has been playing like veteran leaders. They might need both Wednesday night against Indiana.
For much of the Big Ten season, having three seniors — Lawrence McKenzie
, Spencer Tollackson
and Dan Coleman
— wasn't enough for the Gophers. The team's veterans haven't played consistently since the start of season. At times, they've looked like a poised group with enough talent to lead Minnesota
to the NCAA Tournament.
But they've also gone through spells where they looked like Minnesota's most inexperienced players and forced freshmen Blake Hoffarber
and Al Nolen
to lead the way in multiple contests.
Recently, however, they've given Minnesota a lift. Over the past four games, Minnesota has won three. McKenzie gets to practice a few hours early every morning just to work on the shot that has helped Minnesota win lately. Coleman's playing with aggressiveness in the paint that skeptics have been expecting since he first walked on campus. And the fist-pumping Tollackson seems to come through when the Gophers need an emotional burst.
The hard work that the seniors have put in has paid off. Their latest win streak has put them in a position to earn a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament.
C Spencer Tollackson is thinking about his future. The former standout high school pitcher said he wants to pursue a professional baseball career this summer. Until then, however, he's the emotional leader for the Gophers, and he is averaging 10.3 points per game.
G Lawrence McKenzie has heated up toward the end of the season. He's averaged 17.5 points per game over the last four contests. McKenzie re-injured his right hand before he dropped 20 points against Ohio State March 1. He was kept out of practice prior to the game, but the hand didn't appear to bother him during the game. But McKenzie's bruised right hand has to be a concern for the Gophers who expect to play in a postseason tournament.
G Lawrence Westbrook appears to get better every game. At about 5-11, he's the shortest guy on the team. But he's probably the Gophers' strongest player, pound for pound, which is why he remains in the starting rotation.
C Jon Williams is finally using his 6-9, 260-pound frame to his advantage. He's snatched 27 rebounds over the last five games.
Tubby Smith's rotation system is impossible to figure out, but it's working. Recently, he's used a starting lineup that's featured three guards, Lawrence McKenzie, Lawrence Westbrook and Al Nolen. But against Ohio State March 1, Nolen, a standout freshman guard who's at the top of the Big Ten in steals, played just 11 minutes.
IN FOCUS: The last time the Gophers faced Illinois, they suffered their worst loss of the season. And if that wasn't enough of an embarrassment, the Fighting Illini won by 24 points on Minnesota's home turf. But it gets worse. The Gophers have lost to Illinois 18 times in a row. No Big Ten team has a longer winning streak against another Big Ten team than Illinois' record over Minnesota. So when they play March 8, there's a lot more on the line than just pride.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Dan Coleman, C Spencer Tollackson, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G Lawrence Westbrook, G Lawrence McKenzie. Key Subs — G Al Nolen, G Blake Hoffarber.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When I get hot, I get hot." — Lawrence McKenzie after scoring 20 points in the second half of a 71-57 home win against Ohio State March 1.
Minnesota 75, Penn State 68
Minnesota 53, Purdue 65
Minnesota 71, Ohio State 57
at Indiana, Wednesday, March 5.
at Illinois, Saturday, March. 8.