The new task for the Gophers: facing teams they’ve already beaten once this season and yet have morphed into incredibly tougher threats in round 2.

Wednesday, that team was Michigan State, which dismantled the Gophers despite the fact that the Spartans threw out a band of limping, bleeding, broken-backed, dislocated-shouldered warriors and were without another (Travis Trice) who had a concussion.

Next up: Illinois – a team whose 3-7 conference record doesn’t come close to explaining just how dangerous they are.

Anyone who watched last night’s Illini game vs. No. 1 Indiana knows that. The Hoosiers shot 50 percent from the field, and nearly 53 percent from 3-point range. They got double-digit scoring efforts from Cody Zeller, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Will Sheehey. They got 19 points from their bench and scored 28 points in the paint.

And still, the Illini – after falling down by 10 with 4:21 to go – snuck up and made four of five shots (including two 3-pointers) and three of four free throws down the stretch to tie the game at 72 with 37 seconds left.

D.J. Richardson got Victor Oladipo to cough up the ball at the end of Indiana’s possession and after Oladipo blocked his short jumper on the other end out of bounds with less than a second left, the Illini incredibly converted a Tyler Griffey layup at the buzzer when Zeller completely lost his man.

With the win, Illinois bolstered its case for an NCAA tournament invite despite that poor conference record. Enough big wins now – Butler, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Indiana – makes their league record more palatable, especially since their losses, other than at home against Northwestern, aren’t terrible.

But most importantly for that team is the confidence and momentum that will follow this game, which some players were calling the instigator of a turnaround last night. They’ve proven they can beat anyone when they’re on their game.

And with that fact never more evident than last night, the Gophers are truly hitting the Illini at a bad time.

When Minnesota last faced Illinois, the Gophers completely overwhelmed the Illini with offense. They shot 52.9 percent from the field. They had 14 points off the fast break. Joe Coleman scored a career-high 29 points. This team was playing differently then.

This is not to say the Gophers CAN’T beat Illinois now – they certainly can, and have shown they are capable of playing at a high level – but the concerning trend may be that the Gophers have not been able to show they can beat the top teams (they are 0-3 vs. teams ranked in the top 10 at the time they met), while the Illini have (with wins over Ohio State, Gonzaga and now Indiana). And while the Illini reacted in an impressive way to their own shortcomings, the Gophers haven’t had a truly impressive victory over a good team since starting the season 15-1.

Count on Sunday’s game being yet another big test for the 2013 Gophers – something that might not have been said 24 hours ago.

Two other (unrelated) notes:

  • Gophers AD Norwood Teague was on Dan Barreiro’s show on KFAN on Wednesday (before the game at Michigan State) and, among other things, addressed the struggles of the Gophers, and Tubby Smith’s job security. His answers were interesting:

“I’ve said I’m going to let the season play out and evaluate the whole body of work,” Teague said. “Let’s just see what happens. I don’t want to over-evaluate coach in the middle of the year, I don’t think it’s fair to them. But I’m going to look at the whole year.”

(On whether there is any circumstance in which Smith does not return): “I hope not. Unless he, I think he’s committed, I know he’s committed to being here and I want to see him come back. He’s working hard, and I think he wants to do the right thing. We’ll just see.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily take “We’ll just see” as a ringing endorsement of Smith’s current body of work.

  • St. Cloud Tech graduate Nate Wolters scored 53 points against IPFW last night, the most anyone has scored in a non-overtime D-1 game since 2009 (when Jodie Meeks put up 54 for Kentucky). Think his scoring capabilities would fit in well with these Gophers and their jump shot offense? Yes, I think so too.

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