Three-game stretch poses biggest challenge yet for Gophers basketball

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

 Next up are all nationally ranked teams -- No. 12 Illinois, No. 5 Indiana and No. 2 Michigan -- to test the Gophers' own No. 8 rating.

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]."

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

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Cleveland - WP: C. Allen 4 FINAL
Kansas City - LP: G. Holland 3
Baltimore - LP: W. Chen 0 FINAL
NY Yankees - WP: M. Pineda 5
Kansas City - WP: D. Duffy 2 FINAL
Cleveland - LP: C. Carrasco 0
Seattle - LP: J. Paxton 4 FINAL
Toronto - WP: J. Happ 14
Chicago WSox - WP: C. Bassitt 2 FINAL
Detroit - LP: K. Lobstein 0
Pittsburgh - WP: F. Liriano 1 FINAL
Atlanta - LP: A. Harang 0
Houston - LP: N. Tropeano 3 FINAL
Texas - WP: D. Holland 4
St. Louis - WP: A. Wainwright 8 FINAL
Chicago Cubs - LP: T. Wood 0
Arizona - WP: J. Collmenter 6 FINAL
Minnesota - LP: R. Nolasco 2
LA Angels 1 Top 8th Inning
Oakland 8
San Francisco 2 Bottom 9th Inning
Los Angeles 2
Colorado 0 Top 9th Inning
San Diego 1
Chicago 27 FINAL
NY Jets 19
NY Giants 9/25/14 7:25 PM
Washington
Buffalo 9/28/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Green Bay 9/28/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Tennessee 9/28/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Carolina 9/28/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore
Detroit 9/28/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
Tampa Bay 9/28/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
Miami 9/28/14 12:00 PM
Oakland
Jacksonville 9/28/14 3:05 PM
San Diego
Atlanta 9/28/14 3:25 PM
Minnesota
Philadelphia 9/28/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
New Orleans 9/28/14 7:30 PM
Dallas
Ottawa 2 FINAL
NY Islanders 3
Ottawa 5:00 PM
NY Islanders
New Jersey 5 FINAL
NY Rangers 4
Detroit 2 FINAL
Pittsburgh 1
Toronto 3 FINAL
Philadelphia 2
Washington 4 FINAL
Philadelphia 5
Minnesota 1 FINAL
Winnipeg 2
St. Louis 3 FINAL
Dallas 4
Anaheim 5 FINAL
Colorado 2
Colorado 0 FINAL
Anaheim 4
Los Angeles 4 2nd OT :00
Arizona 5
Arizona 2 3rd Prd 2:33
Los Angeles 3
Texas Tech 9/25/14 6:30 PM
(24) Oklahoma State
Appalachian St 9/25/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
(11) UCLA 9/25/14 9:00 PM
(15) Arizona State
Middle Tennessee 9/26/14 7:00 PM
Old Dominion
Fresno State 9/26/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico
Texas-El Paso 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(25) Kansas State
Tennessee 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(12) Georgia
Vanderbilt 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Kentucky
Wyoming 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(9) Michigan State
Northwestern 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Penn State
TCU 9/27/14 11:00 AM
SMU
Iowa 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Purdue
Tulane 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Rutgers
So Florida 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
Colorado State 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Boston College
Western Mich 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Virginia Tech
Maryland 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Indiana
Akron 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Pittsburgh
Bowling Green 9/27/14 2:00 PM
Massachusetts
Arkansas 9/27/14 2:30 PM
(6) Texas A&M
Kent State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Virginia
Western Ky 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Navy
Minnesota 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Wake Forest 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Louisville
FIU 9/27/14 2:30 PM
UAB
(1) Florida State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
NC State
Miami-Ohio 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
Colorado 9/27/14 3:00 PM
California
Louisiana Tech 9/27/14 3:00 PM
(5) Auburn
Texas 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Kansas
Temple 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Connecticut
(16) Stanford 9/27/14 3:15 PM
Washington
TX-San Antonio 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Fla Atlantic
South Alabama 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Idaho
Cincinnati 9/27/14 5:00 PM
(22) Ohio State
Rice 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Southern Miss
Missouri 9/27/14 6:00 PM
(13) So Carolina
Boise State 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Air Force
North Carolina 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Clemson
Central Mich 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Toledo
Troy 9/27/14 6:00 PM
ULM
New Mexico St 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(17) LSU
Memphis 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(10) Ole Miss
Duke 9/27/14 6:30 PM
Miami-Florida
Texas State 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Tulsa
Washington St 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Utah
(8) Notre Dame 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Syracuse
(7) Baylor 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Iowa State
UNLV 9/27/14 7:00 PM
San Diego St
Illinois 9/27/14 8:00 PM
(21) Nebraska
Oregon State 9/27/14 9:30 PM
(18) USC
Nevada 9/27/14 9:30 PM
San Jose St
Montreal 9/26/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa
Saskatchewan 9/26/14 9:00 PM
Edmonton
Hamilton 9/27/14 5:30 PM
Winnipeg
Brt Columbia 9/27/14 8:30 PM
Calgary

ADVERTISEMENT

Advertisement
Golden Gavel by Star Tribune

Time left for great deals

Bid thru Sept. 29

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Grade the Vikings offense

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close