Gophers getting serious about altering their basketball fate

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 28, 2012 - 8:22 AM

They reversed an 0-4 Big Ten start with three wins. Now they don't want a recent loss at Michigan State to snowball.

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The Gophers' Rodney Williams fouled Illinois' Brandon Paul.

Photo: Robert K. O'daniell, Associated Press

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This is not a do-over.

In the Gophers' rematch against Illinois, they're in a different place with a new lineup and a new offense. They're not trying to set their course in the Big Ten, they're trying to change it.

Nothing Saturday will change the outcome of Minnesota's Big Ten season-opening, two-overtime loss to Illinois. But redemption is critical.

Now the Gophers are fighting for their season, and after nearly beating Illinois a month ago, this game could be key in turning their season around.

"I expect everybody this time of year, at the halfway mark, when you're not playing well, you've come off of a loss and you're trying to get yourself back," coach Tubby Smith said. "We're two games under .500; we're a team that's very desperate to get wins."

After an 0-4 conference start, things with the Gophers (15-6, 3-5) were just starting to look good. They had won three in a row with a tinkered approach and were playing with a new intensity.

Then they went to Michigan State and were blown out by 16 points.

A victory tonight could get the Gophers back on track. A loss could sent them back into a familiar tailspin.

"It's important," Smith said. "It's a huge game for us. We've got to embrace the challenge."

Seven games ago, in their conference-opening matchup at Illinois, the Gophers did just that. With the entire league unsure of what to expect out of a team missing its biggest star, the Gophers took the game to the wire. But they missed a legitimate chance to steal it in regulation when Julian Welch missed two free throws in the waning seconds.

"I think that definitely stuck with us," Gophers forward Rodney Williams said. "I feel like we gave that game away. We had some times down the stretch where we didn't get stops we needed and we didn't hit free throws we needed to hit."

Had they beaten Illinois, going into the Michigan game that followed with that added confidence could have been the necessary edge, and even if they had still lost against the Wolverines, coming home to a two-game stretch at 1-1 is much different than heading into two must-wins and already in a two-loss hole.

"It would have given us a little more confidence going into the Michigan game, but I can't say how much it would have changed the outcome of the other games," Williams said.

As it turns out, seven games later, the Gophers and the Illini are at somewhat similar junctures of their seasons. With both teams holding losing records in the conference and both coming off losses -- and the Illini coming off two straight, getting beat by Wisconsin after falling to Penn State -- each is in a position where a win is very important.

"I think [Illinois] probably feels like that after coming off a loss against Wisconsin, that they're in that same situation," Smith said.

The Gophers realize that while their team and style has changed, beating the Illini will still be a big challenge for a team that got simply outmuscled at Michigan State.

Smith challenged his players to "get a lot tougher" before Saturday's matchup -- against a lineup that includes powerful center Meyers Leonard and capable guard Brandon Paul. Williams said a practice that was more physical than usual was proof the players took those words to heart.

  • GOPHERS VS. ILLINOIS

    7 tonight • Williams Arena • TV: Big Ten Network (1500ESPN)

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