The Big Ten men's basketball season is back, and its cache of competition perhaps better than ever, but this Gophers team seems suited to the challenge.
It battles physically; it's full of mental toughness; it comes up big in defining moments.
A year ago, the Gophers were a team with no leaders, but this year nearly anyone in the starting lineup can assume that role.
On Monday, Minnesota got monster performances from sophomore point guard Andre Hollins and senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who looked as explosive as he has all season in playing without his brace for the first time, as the Gophers overcame a somewhat sloppy second half and powered past No. 18 Michigan State 76-63 at Williams Arena.
With the Gophers leading 64-63 with three minutes remaining in the game, Hollins took over. The sophomore point guard instigated a 12-0 finishing run -- part of a suffocating 18-2 stretch over the final seven minutes -- that featured six points from himself as well as an impressive play by Austin Hollins and Mbakwe, who snatched a steal, then started a three-pass back-and-forth break with Hollins, who finished it with a slam to put Minnesota up by seven as the energy swelled from the announced crowd of 14,625.
"These last three or four years, we had Michigan State beat and they came back and beat us in the last couple minutes," said Mbakwe, who notched his third double-double of the season with 11 points and 12 rebounds. "We didn't want that to happen again. But this team is tough. This is a special team. We can go pretty far."
The Gophers (13-1) are providing convincing evidence of Mbakwe's claims. They moved up two spots in the Associated Press poll -- to No. 9 nationally -- only minutes before tipoff, and they validated that position by jumping out to a 25-16 lead. They got out in transition, thrived in the half-court offense and matched the toughness and physicality of Michigan State (11-3). They outrebounded the Spartans 38-24 and outshot them 56.6 to 44.4 percent from the field.
"We knew we had to come out and answer the call of Michigan State," said Andre Hollins, who finished with 22 points and six assists. "We knew they were a tough, physical team because of last year. Joe [Coleman] and I, we talked about how aggressive they were. We were like 'Gosh, they play so hard.' But we knew what we had to do. That goes to the year of experience."
Minnesota controlled play for most of the first half, extending its lead to 12 at 37-25 on an Andre Hollins three-pointer with 4:57 left, but the Spartans regrouped. They went on a 13-2 run led by sophomore guard Travis Trice, who hit three three-pointers in that stretch, the last of which at the halftime buzzer narrowed the deficit to 39-38.
In the second half, the Spartans picked up their defense and the Gophers' offense stalled for extended stretches. Minnesota turned over the ball seven times in the first 7:42, which Michigan State cashed in for seven points. Missed free throws and an excruciating issue with botched in-bounds plays only compounded the Gophers' second-half woes as they allowed the Spartans to climb back into the game and take their first lead at 53-51 on a layup by Branden Dawson 5:24 into the second.
But the Gophers regrouped, coming out of a TV timeout full of energy but trailing 64-63, and throttled the Spartans with a dominating finish.
"That's what's going to get us through this season -- our defense," Andre Hollins said.