Two years ago, the Gophers men's basketball team finished 9-9 in the Big Ten, compared to a rather dismal 6-12 record this year, but the Gophers went to the Big Ten tournament championship game by beating Penn State, No. 11 Michigan State and No. 6 Purdue in three days before losing in the championship to Ohio State.
For their performance in beating those ranked teams, the Gophers earned a berth in the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round to Xavier.
Tubby Smith believes the Gophers can repeat that performance and so does Rodney Williams, and when "Mr. Dunk" is playing up to his form, the Gophers have a chance to beat anybody.
After all, the Gophers did lose four conference games by five points or fewer, and they lost another one in overtime. Smith said one of the reasons the team has been struggling was because nobody got hot like Chip Armelin did Saturday, when the sophomore guard scored 20 points.
"I think this was definitely one of our biggest wins because going into the Big Ten tournament, it's like a whole new season," said Williams, who scored 16 points and added eight rebounds in the 81-69 victory over Nebraska to close out the regular season.
"So if you can go in there with confidence, anything can happen. Just like my freshman year, we kind of went on a losing streak, won the last one and then we made the championship in the Big Ten tournament. That's the kind of run that we're looking to make again this year."
One of the biggest problems the Gophers have had this year is finishing games and, after losing six in a row, they finally did it Saturday.
"It was about time, we've been thinking the same thing," Williams said. "Usually late in games, we've been having trouble turning over the ball and getting stops, but besides those deep threes, I felt like we closed out the game pretty well."
And Williams is confident the Gophers can score a second victory over Northwestern, whom they face in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday. The teams also met in last year's tournament, with the Wildcats winning 75-65.
"I think it's very possible," Williams said. "We play them tight when we play them. I think it's very possible for us to make a run.
"If everybody is out there playing 100 percent we can definitely make a run in the tournament, I feel like."
One thing encouraging about Saturday was that they moved the ball well, with a season-high 23 assists.
"You know it's definitely good to see that we can come out here and play and have five players in double figures," Williams said. "We kind of struggled scoring the basketball on and off this season, so I think it's real good for us to see that we're still capable of doing that."
Nebraska coach Doc Sadler paid tribute to Williams when he said: "He's a good player. Again, Rodney has been a good player all year, but he makes spectacular plays. I don't know what he ended up with, 16 points, you'd think he'd ended up with 40 because those 16 points were usually plays that are really exciting. ... You'd think he ended up with 20 [rebounds] and you find out he had eight."
While this Gophers team has been up and down, they were in just about every game and had chances to beat Michigan State and Wisconsin at Williams Arena. So if senior Ralph Sampson III goes all out like he did Saturday and they get the same effort with Williams, anything can happen.
And the Gophers might get guard Julian Welch, one of their top players who has been sidelined by a hip problem, back for the Big Ten tournament.
Elite squad tied to Minnesota
The Penticton Vees, led by a number of Minnesota players, entered Saturday having won 39 consecutive games going back to November and as they near the end of the regular season are ranked No. 1 in the Canadian Junior Hockey League rankings, after starting the year ranked 12th.
Former St. Francis High School athlete Joey Benik, who has committed to St. Cloud State, led the team in scoring with 89 points (28 goals, 61 assists). Chanhassen's Connor Reilly (35 goals, 51 assists), a former Holy Angels athlete who has committed to the Gophers, and Wayzata's Mario Lucia (37 goals, 49 assists), the Wild draft pick and son of Gophers coach Don Lucia, were tied for second on the team with 86 points.
Mike Reilly, brother of Connor and also a Gophers recruit, was the team's top-scoring defenseman with 74 points (23 goals, 51 assists), and the third brother in the family is Ryan, another Gophers recruit who had 66 points (29 goals, 37 assists).
Other players on the team with Minnesota ties include Canadians Bryce Gervais (40 goals, 32 assists) and Nick Buchanan (one goal, 14 assists), who are Minnesota State Mankato recruits. Defenseman D.J. Jones (two goals, eight assists) is a former Wayzata High School athlete, and defenseman Chad Bannor (four assists) is from Hermantown.
• Grand Canyon University inducted Kevin Warren, the Vikings vice president of legal affairs, into its Hall of Fame this weekend. From 1984 to '86, Warren scored 1,118 points in men's basketball, good for a 20.0 average, fourth-best in the Phoenix school's history.
• Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Lester Frazier were present Saturday night in Kansas City, Mo., where defensive end Jared Allen was honored by the Kansas City Committee of 101 for being named the NFL Defensive Lineman of the Year.
• Matt Birk, the St. Paul native who left the Vikings to play center three years for the Ravens, announced his retirement, but Baltimore coaches will try to persuade him to play another year. He would look good in a Vikings uniform playing a position other than center, where John Sullivan is doing a good job.
• Visiting the Gophers football coaching staff for information this past week were coaches from Northern Illinois, Toledo, Augustana, Minnesota State Mankato, Winona State, Minot State, Central Missouri and Emporia State, as well as the Montreal Alouettes. Their presence was a real tribute to coach Jerry Kill and his staff. ... Before that, Gophers defensive coaches went to Mississippi State to check with its staff, while offensive coaches went to Baylor. The defensive staff will visit TCU in the near future.
• Jackson Miller, who was a defensive lineman at Okemos, Mich., last season and is the son of Gophers assistant head coach Bill Miller, will walk on at Minnesota this fall.
• Mikias Alipate, an outstanding Holy Angels linebacker and brother of Moses, was at Gophers junior day last week. Moses Alipate, who has lost 35 pounds and now weighs around 250, will be a tight end for the Gophers this spring rather than a quarterback.