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Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe celebrates with Elliott Eliason against Michigan State.

Andy King, Associated Press

(8) GOPHERS AT (12) ILLINOIS • 8 p.m. today • TV: Big Ten Network (1500-AM)

Next three games pose biggest challenge yet for Gophers

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO
  • Star Tribune
  • January 9, 2013 - 8:12 PM

The Gophers men's basketball team dominated its nonconference schedule. They effectively navigated the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, winning two of three against solid competition. They climbed the national rankings ladder all the way to No. 8 this week, the highest the Gophers have officially been since the 1981-82 season (excluding, of course, the vacated 1996-97 season).

Yes, the Gophers (14-1) have thus far outperformed the initial, even optimistic prognostications. But with increased success comes higher expectations. And bigger efforts from opponents. And many others simply waiting for the other shoe to drop.

As the Gophers head into their toughest stretch of the season -- a three-game tour in which they face No. 12 Illinois on Wednesday and No. 5 Indiana on Saturday on the road, then return home to play No. 2 Michigan on Jan. 17 -- they know that how they fare will be critical in setting the tone for the two months ahead.

"This is a big challenge for ourselves," senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said. "We know it's not going to be easy, but we're up for the challenge. This year is different and we want to make this year special. And we think we have a good chance of going in those places and winning."

The Gophers certainly look better prepared for the task this season. Despite having nearly the same personnel as a year ago, they've proven to be much improved. Minnesota is mostly at full strength right now, with Mbakwe back from a torn ACL that caused him to miss the entire Big Ten schedule last year and other starters healing from nagging injuries. And the Gophers are exhibiting stingy defense, a new toughness and impressive balance and poise on offense.

"Everybody's a year older," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "We had six new guys last year, going on the road and starting the year off with our first game on the road, that's always tough."

This year, the Gophers had the luxury of starting off the Big Ten schedule with a pair of games at Williams Arena, against then-No. 18 Michigan State and Northwestern. Minnesota won both games -- defending their home court will be as important as ever this season -- but the road ahead will only get tougher.

As a whole, the Big Ten is even stronger than it was a year ago, when many analysts lauded it as the best conference in the nation. Aside from the three teams at the bottom of the conference -- Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern -- every team seems capable of making the NCAA tournament this season.

And the talent at the top is even stronger. Indiana and Michigan are two of the most talented and complete teams in the nation, and Illinois has proven capable of beating anyone when it shoots well.

The home team has won all but four games in Big Ten play so far, including Indiana squeezing by Iowa in Iowa City and Michigan overwhelming Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. But hey, that's the Big Ten.

"That's why you come here to play," Gophers senior forward Rodney Williams said. "We're going to go to some real tough atmospheres and play some really tough teams but we're going to prepare like we've been preparing all year. We're not going to change the way we do things. We've just got to come out ready, ready to fight because going on the road in the Big Ten anywhere is going to be tough."

Meanwhile, a somewhat wounded fanbase still seems wary of similar collapses to what they saw in league play the past two years. As of now, some are still hesitant to believe this team is "real." The next three games, however, will be a pretty good measuring stick and indication of things to come.

As for Smith, he wouldn't bet against a team that continues to surprise him with its tenacity.

"I'm finding something out every day in practice," he said. "Every moment, I learn something new about this group, so I'm sure I'll learn a lot [in that stretch]."

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