CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It's hard to believe that a player who finished with a game-high 29 points Wednesday night against Illinois could be the most undervalued member of the Gophers' starting lineup -- but then, that's Minnesota this year.
Joe Coleman has substantially improved from a season ago, scoring 10.9 points per game as a sophomore after averaging 5.8 as a freshman. That his accomplishments have been overshadowed is an indication of just how balanced and productive the starting five has been this season.
But just as each starter has had breakout games, Wednesday in Champaign once again was a reminder of just how critical Coleman is to the fabric of this up-tempo team as it takes a 15-1 record and No. 8 national ranking into its showdown at No. 5 Indiana on Saturday.
"It's really important," Coleman said of the Gophers' ability to push the pace and score on the fast break. "Coach [Tubby Smith] has been harping on, we've got to get out and run and that's our best game. I don't think he thought we did too well with that against Northwestern, so we were able to focus in on that [against Illinois]."
That's for certain. Against a team that thrives on the run, the Gophers were able to establish that as their identity while holding Illinois without a single fast-break point.
And Coleman -- one of the Gophers' best tools in transition -- was in fine form. The former Hopkins standout scored 24 of his 29 points in a second half that saw the Gophers nearly lose their 12-point lead and then build it all the way back on the legs of Coleman, who created a one-man highlight reel. He had a series of dunks and other scores around the basket, got to the line and battled with the physical Illini.
"It was a physical game and Joe's a physical guy, he's absorbs the contact," point guard Andre Hollins said. "This was one of his games."
In the Illinois victory, Coleman was the spark that represented a characteristic that has personified the Gophers this season: an ability to respond to momentum changes.
Against Memphis, Michigan State and Illinois, the Gophers have watched their opponent come back from a large deficit and make what might have been a devastating run a year ago. But instead of panicking, Minnesota has, in each of those circumstances, responded with grit and aggressiveness, making a strong comeback of its own.
On Wednesday, the Gophers got off track and watched a 42-30 lead shrink to 44-42 during a three-minute second-half stretch when Minnesota went 0-for-4 with two turnovers and two fouls. But the Gophers got a steal from Austin Hollins, who fed Coleman for a dunk. Those were two of his nine points during a 19-7 run that got Minnesota back on track.
"That's been the difference for our team this year," senior Trevor Mbakwe said. "The last couple years I've been here, when teams make a run, that's kind of it for us. But we were able to have that extra punch at the end."
For the Gophers, that blow was delivered by Coleman this time, an opportunity presented because Minnesota's balance won't allow defenses to concentrate on any one threat.
"It just makes us more of a tough team," Coleman said. "It's hard to focus in on one player if you've got a lot of guys that can pull it off any night."
• Note: Andre Hollins was named a Bob Cousy Award finalist, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced. The award is given annually to the nation's top men's basketball point guard. Hollins is one of 20 finalists.