The Gophers play the No. 5 team in the country, Michigan, at home on Thursday night. At roughly the same time only a few miles away, the Timberwolves play one of the NBA's best teams, the Los Angeles Clippers.

In terms of rooting interest among Twin Cities hoops fans, there's no comparison in choosing between those two viewing options. The Gophers own the winter months when the basketball team is good and the Barn comes alive. That just hasn't happened in a long time.

The sports landscape around here lately has resembled a frozen abyss once Vikings season concludes, a cold, dark interlude until we turn our attention to spring training and the NFL draft.

The Gophers are starting to breathe life into a bland basketball scene. Their fast start, top-10 national ranking and unselfish style of play have captured fan interest and turned Williams Arena into a destination once again. Thursday's clash with Michigan represents a scalper's delight and a chance for the Barn to reveal its soul after years of dormancy.

The Gophers have an opportunity to claim center stage in a season that began with more intrigue focused on the Target Center tenants. That's not necessarily a knock on the Wolves, though. They positioned themselves to return to relevance when they removed some dead weight and assembled a more professional outfit this season. But knuckle pushups and an assortment of injuries have turned their promising season into a real buzzkill.

Talk to long-time followers of Twin Cities sports and they contend that a relevant Gophers basketball team ranks third in popularity, behind only the Vikings and Twins. The old guard wax poetic about spending snowy Saturday afternoons inside the Barn when the building shook and their heads pounded because of the intense noise. They recall stories -- or an old wives' tale? -- about a frustrated fire marshal turning a blind eye to the turnstile count as bodies crammed inside to supply a suffocating home-court advantage. The anticipation of a big game at the Barn made the wait insufferably long.

The romanticism gained a foothold under Bill Musselman in the early 1970s and picked up a new generation as Clem Haskins built a Final Four program. But those warm memories became just that as an academic scandal and substandard product knocked the program into irrelevancy. As a result, the Barn began to show its warts.

Having migrated here in 2000, the mysticism surrounding the old arena and raised court escaped me. Frankly, I didn't understand the love affair and questioned the effect Williams Arena had in recruiting because young kids like shiny new things. They appreciate bling more than tradition.

The Barn truly is a unique venue that requires effort and patience. Parking is terrible, amenities limited and seating is tighter than on a puddle jumper. If you haven't experienced the Barn at his zenith, it's hard to accept its charm and benefits.

That's been the case the past decade or so. Unable to sustain any real stretch of success, the Gophers nestled into a slumber as pockets of empty seats dotted their home. Gameday hardly resembled that boiling pot of emotion that old-timers remember with reverence.

But the old Barn finally felt alive again during this season's Big Ten opener against Michigan State on New Year's Eve. The place had electricity and atmosphere. Fans went bonkers as the Gophers raced away from the gritty Spartans with a late-game flourish.

Suddenly, the Barn made sense. If the product is good, the building's age is only a number. Sure, it still could use some modernization -- not to mention a practice facility -- but the home-court advantage it provides is undeniable when the place is rocking.

Tubby Smith's team is equipped to provide more of those moments. Beyond their obvious talent, the Gophers compete hard, play together, embrace their defensive responsibilities and genuinely don't care who scores the most points in any particular game. That's a formula for success. Now they just have to show it over the course of an entire Big Ten season.

The Gophers can make a statement Thursday night and prove they are deserving of their No. 9 ranking and all the praise being heaped upon them. They can prove that they indeed are real contenders and serious about their March plans.

This is an important game for them. A Big Ten opponent and top-five team coming into the Barn in the dead of winter.

It must feel like old times.

Chip Scoggins •