Reusse: U's Williams loves home crowd, but savors Big Ten road victories

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2013 - 11:21 AM
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Rodney Williams

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The prestige of winning a regular-season championship in a major basketball conference has been diminished over the past couple of decades. The results of the conference tournaments often get more attention than the regular- season standings.

College basketball has become about what happens in the single-elimination, neutral-site postseason, rather than what occurs during the 2 1/2 months when teams are playing in either loudly supportive home arenas or hostile road environments.

Yet when it comes to a conference such as the Big Ten, the pursuit of a conference title over an 18-game grind carries much more nobility than does attaining a degree of success in the one-game crapshoot of postseason play.

Confirmation of this view was sought from the Gophers' Rodney Williams during a media session Wednesday inside the Sports Pavilion.

Williams is a senior forward. He will play in his 119th game for the Gophers on Thursday night. It will be start No. 88, including 79 in a row. The visit from No. 5 Michigan will be the biggest -- and surely the loudest -- of those games.

Rodney and his teammates are hungry for a Big Ten regular-season title, even if those things are not honored as much nationally as when the Gophers won their last (on the court) in 1997.

"It is definitely a big goal for us, to win a championship," Williams said. "It's the biggest test you can have: to go on the road, face the crowd, and come out with a win.

"You have to be road warriors to win in the conference season."

Michigan did win a Big Ten opener at Northwestern, but that hardly counts. The Wolverines' first attempt as road warriors failed with Sunday's 56-53 loss at Ohio State. They get another shot inside what is sure to be an old-fashioned Williams Arena madhouse.

The Gophers split last week on the road: a nice 84-67 victory at Illinois, an 88-81 loss at Indiana. If the Gophers can win Thursday, they have the advantage of not being required to give Michigan a rematch in Ann Arbor.

"The loudest it has been in the Barn since I've been here was the Michigan State game [Dec. 31]," Williams said. "I think the crowd's going to turn that up a notch for Michigan."

Everyone enjoys playing in front of home fans. It's on the road where titles are decided. After Thursday, seven of the Gophers' last 13 will be played at Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Purdue.

There's some cake there, but those four between Northwestern and Nebraska -- that's where a senior (Williams) or two (Trevor Mbakwe) can show teammates how to deal with the hostility.

"It was tough when I first got here -- playing on the road in the Big Ten," Williams said. "You come from playing in high school gyms with 1,000 people at the most, to having 15,000 people screaming at you."

Does he enjoy that now? "You'd rather play at home, but it's special to go on the road and win," Williams said.

Obviously, Rodney and the Gophers don't want Michigan to leave Minneapolis feeling special. And what's amazing is that -- after two seasons of complete Big Ten drudgery -- the Gophers stand as three-point favorites to beat a Michigan team that would've been rated No. 1 if it had won at Ohio State.

What is the source of this mighty Minnesota turnaround, beyond the return to health and a sixth year of eligibility for Mbakwe?

"It goes back to the NIT run we made after last season," Williams said. "We had a lot of young guys, and I think getting to the finals in New York proved to us that we were capable of showing up and playing winning basketball."

The starting five can be as good as the Big Ten has to offer right now: Mbakwe the bruiser, Williams the elevator man, Joe Coleman the slasher, Austin Hollins the defender and occasional three-point bomber, and Andre Hollins, the sophomore talent who will engage Michigan's tremendous Trey Burke in what could be a memorable duel of guards.

Thursday night should be fun.

"It will be," Rodney Williams said of his 119th and most-hyped game as a Gopher.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. preusse@startribune.com

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