Men's hoops preview: Gophers defy expectations

Wisconsin will face a disciplined, balanced team in Minneapolis today

After finishing 12-18 last season and a miserable 3-13 in conference play, the University of Minnesota men's basketball team was supposed to be the league's doormat yet again this season.

This was, after all, a team that lost its best player, forward Kris Humphries, to the NBA after just one season, lost starting point guard Adam Boone to a torn biceps tendon and lost likely starter Maurice Hargrow to academic ineligibility.

Last week the Gophers lost to Illinois amidst the Illini's 100th anniversary celebrations. Later this year Purdue will celebrate Gene Keady's career when Minnesota is in town.

"We found out when we were 12-18 last year we were going to be everyone's homecoming game," UM coach Dan Monson said. "Everybody is planning their festivities when the Gophers come to town."

Minnesota has been far from the punching bag opponents have expected, however. Yes, No. 1 Illinois kept their festivities lively and dispatched with the upstart Gophers, but Illinois has not blinked all season. Minnesota, meanwhile, checks in at 5-3 in conference play and 15-6 overall. Recent wins at Michigan and home versus Indiana have propelled the Gophers into a fourth-place tie with the Hoosiers, just one game behind second-place Wisconsin (6-2, 15-4).

"We could sit here and talk all day about last year," Monson said. "This is a whole different makeup… We talked about in September, the first day, that we were going to have a different mindset."

Looking up the standings at Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan State, Monson sees the peak his team is trying to reach.

"The league separates there. Those three are at an elite level right now that the rest of us are trying to get to that level and that consistency," Monson said. "First and foremost is their talent level is probably above ours a little bit. To bridge that gap we've got to really be more disciplined…. than anybody else, as far as our shot selections, as far as our defensive mistakes."

For the most part Minnesota has done just that: played disciplined basketball, outworking its opponents.

"They've steadily come together as a team," UW assistant coach Gary Close said. Close scouted Minnesota for the Badgers. "They've really bought in to what they are trying to do. They are playing very unselfishly, playing hard and they're improving. That's the key thing. They are just getting better and better."

Defense has been especially key for the Gophers. Forward Brent Lawson and reserve guard Rico Tucker each average 2.0 steals per game and guards Vincent Grier (1.9) and Aaron Robinson (1.57), are ranked fifth and ninth, respectively.

That quartet has 157 of Minnesota's 208 steals this season. By comparison, the entire Wisconsin team has 113.

"Active with the hands," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "They've got some guys, Lawson and [Dan] Coleman and those guys who can deflect passes… They'll get everybody to turn it over."

"I think they are playing real solid defense," Close said. "They are quick, they're athletic. They put good pressure on the ball."

Minnesota leads the conference in steals and is second in blocks, led by 7-foot, 270-pound center Jeff Hagen, who is second in the Big Ten with 2.5 blocks per game.

In conference-only games, the Gophers are holding opponents to 42 percent shooting and 25 percent 3-point shooting, which has neutralized their own 42 percent field-goal shooting in league games.

Offensively, Minnesota is led by Grier, a 6-5 junior college transfer who has burst onto the Big Ten scene this season, averaging 16.3 points, 2.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game.

"He's great on the attack. He's so athletic," Ryan said. "You can look across the league and not find very many guys that can get into gaps like he can. He's a slasher-and-a-half."

"This is a tough league to come in as a first-year player," Close said. "He's got a nice body. He's a very mature kid. He's very athletic. He's just doing a real good job of dribble-penetrating."

Grier has been a nice compliment to Hagen, the big center who has come into his own this season, averaging 12.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.

"It takes big guys longer to get prepared for the college game," Ryan said. "Hagen's a late bloomer…He's getting better because his body is better, his court awareness is better. When he catches the ball in the post he's better with the ball."

Hagen had one of his best games in the Gophers' win at Ann Arbor Wednesday, with 15 points on 5 of 5 shooting and 5 of 6 from the free throw line, to go along with nine rebounds, five assists, four blocks and three steals.

"He's huge and he's playing the best basketball he's ever played," Close said. "I think he's in great shape…He's got great hands. He's refined his post moves. He's got good counter and uses his body really well. Terrific passer. He's a great example of being unselfish."

Hagen's size and strength will challenge Badger forwards Mike Wilkinson and Andreas Helmigk inside, while Grier will likely be the latest top offensive option to be checked by Badger guard Clayton Hanson.

If Hanson can slow down Grier, do not expect him to force things offensively.

"[Grier] is real unselfish," Close said. "I think he's a prime example of what they are all doing in terms of sacrificing their games for the good of the team."

Last season is in the past. This Minnesota team is legitimate.

What: No. 19 Wisconsin (6-2 Big Ten, 15-4 overall) at Minnesota (5-3, 15-6)
Where: Williams Arena (14,625) in Minneapolis
When: Saturday, Feb. 5 at 11 a.m. Central
Broadcasts: ESPN2 will televise the game live nationally, the Wisconsin Radio Network will provide a live audio broadcast.
Series notes: Minnesota leads the all-time series 96-82 and holds a 64-27 advantage in Minneapolis. Wisconsin, however, has won the last seven meetings and 10 of the past 11.

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