If Minnesota is to finish strong, it will have to continue with defensive efforts like the one displayed in the 72-45 victory against the Wildcats.
"We haven't had a reason to smile in awhile," Smith said.
A few more defensive performances like this will have Smith beaming all the way to the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats connected on just 14 field goals, while their assist/turnover ratio was an even 11-11. Not surprisingly, the Gophers' previous four losses all came on the road. The fact Minnesota closes the season with three of its last four at home, Smith believes, will help ratchet up the defensive intensity.
The Gophers' defense is what carried them to a 17-1 start to the season. Since then, they are 3-6.
"One of the things that we had gotten away from doing was pushing the tempo and pressuring the ball," Smith said. "We've had four or five games on the road, and doing that effectively is tough to do on the road."
The Gophers have plenty of work left to do. They have difficult games remaining against Illinois and Wisconsin before finishing the regular season against Michigan.
"They understood the urgency and the intensity that we are going to have to play with," Smith said. "If we don't continue to do that, it'll be a tough game at Illinois this week."
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.
IN FOCUS: The Gophers blasted Illinois by 23 in the first meeting, but they have lost four of their last six games since. Minnesota is creeping toward that defensive tenacity it showed at the start of the season, which is what will be needed against an Illini team that has proven to struggle scoring at times. Remember, this is the same team that mustered 33 points recently against Penn State.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We need all the wins we can get. (It) puts us right back in the mix of things." — Lawrence Westbrook, on the Gophers' climb into fifth place in the Big Ten
Penn State 68, Minnesota 63
Michigan 74, Minnesota 62
Minnesota 72, Northwestern 45
at Illinois, Wednesday, Feb. 26
Vs. Wisconsin, Tuesday, March 4
Vs. Michigan, Monday, March 9