Hartman: Gophers shoot for sixth seed in Big Ten tournament

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2013 - 10:53 PM

If the team plays well, as in its past two victories, Minnesota could go on another postseason tear as they did in the NIT last year.

Gophers senior forward Rodney Williams dunked on Penn State's Patrick Ackerman.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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If the Gophers men's basketball team can win games at Nebraska on Wednesday and at Purdue on Saturday in the final week of the Big Ten regular season, it could finish as high as sixth in the conference, which would mean it would face the 11th-place team in the first round of the league tournament.

A big key for the team is having senior forward Rodney Williams perform like he did in Saturday's 73-44 victory against Penn State. His injured shoulder appeared much better, as Williams scored 10 points, including a couple spectacular plays, and added seven rebounds against the Nittany Lions. He had seven points and five rebounds in the 77-73 upset of No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday.

Gophers coach Tubby Smith said the 6-7 Williams was helped by starting at small forward instead of power forward against Penn State.

"I thought that made a difference in our game and his play as well," Smith said. "He wasn't inside banging with guys that are pretty physical. I thought that was key. ... His matchup was much easier for him to guard and gave [Penn State] some trouble as well.

"He's still wearing a harness on that shoulder, but I can tell he's a lot better. That helps when Rodney is healthy."

Williams verified that his shoulder feels better, and he is hoping the Gophers can re-create their postseason success of a year ago.

"I definitely think that we can make a run like we did last year," Williams said. "Around this time we caught fire."

The Gophers made it to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament last year as a No. 9 seed, before losing 73-69 in overtime to second-seeded Michigan. Then they won four road games in the NIT before losing 75-51 to Stanford in the final.

"I think this is the perfect time to do it. We definitely can win these last two games," Williams said.

He has reason to be optimistic. If the Gophers rebound well and limit their turnovers like they have the past two games, they can beat anybody.

In their two blowout losses at Ohio State and Iowa, the Gophers outrebounded those two teams only 70-63, compared with beating Indiana and Penn State on the boards by a combined 90-60. They also had 41 turnovers in the two losses, compared with only 20 in the two victories.

"We have a team that we know is capable of winning a Big Ten [tournament] championship," Williams said. "We're going to go out to Chicago and show it. We've always believed we can beat anybody. It's up to us. We just have to come out and play with the fight and intensity that we did the last two games. We can play with anybody in the country, we believe."

Sixth seed possible

With a heathier Williams, and senior forward Trevor Mbakwe performing like an all-conference player, the Gophers have a chance to finish as high as sixth in the Big Ten, and the schedule is favorable for that to happen.

The Nos. 1-5 seeds are going to be some combination of Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Minnesota is 8-8 in the conference and tied with Illinois for sixth. But the Illini have a tougher schedule down the stretch with games at Iowa, which is one game behind both teams at 7-9 in the conference, and at No. 16 Ohio State to finish the season.

Iowa has its game at home with Illinois and then finishes the season at home against Nebraska -- which gives the Hawkeyes a decent shot to finish at 9-9 in the conference.

Purdue is the other team that could tie the Gophers. But while the 7-9 Boilermakers have two home games remaining, they are against No. 4 Michigan on Wednesday and the Gophers on Saturday. If the Gophers won that game, there would be no chance for Purdue to catch them.

The main thing for the Gophers is that if they win their final two games, they'll have a great chance to secure the sixth seed in the conference tournament and have a favorable first-round matchup before facing the No. 3 seed in the quarterfinals if they win.

However, beating Nebraska in Lincoln might not be easy because the Cornhuskers are going to move into a new arena next season after 37 years, and their game against the Gophers will be the last one played in Devaney Center.

Some of the events scheduled along with senior night include a tribute to loyal fans who have attended games there for a long time, autographs available from former Cornhuskers and, at halftime, an all-Devaney Center team will be named.

The Cornhuskers have won only four of 16 conference games, beating Penn State twice as well as Northwestern and Iowa.

Jottings

• In addition to my speculation in Sunday's column that former Timberwolves and longtime NBA head coach Flip Saunders will be named the Wolves' president of basketball operations before the 2013-2014 season starts, I believe that once he is back with the Wolves, Saunders could put together a group that would buy the part of the franchise that owner Glen Taylor wants to sell.

• Tom Kelly last managed the Twins in 2001, but he has worked with players at spring training every year since in Fort Myers, Fla.

• Cooper standout Rashad Vaughn scored 36 points in a 80-77 victory over Spring Lake Park on Friday, with a number of Gophers assistant coaches in attendance.

• Timberwolves second-round draft pick and former Purdue standout Robbie Hummel is playing for Blusens Monbus Obradoiro in Spain and averaging 8.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 17.8 minutes per game.

• Former Gopher Jeff Taffe is the tied for fourth in scoring in the AHL with 15 goals and 36 assists for 51 points in 54 games for Hershey. Two former Gophers also are playing for Hershey: Ryan Potulny, who is the Bears' fourth-leading scorer with 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points in 47 games, and Mike Carman, who has four goals and seven assists in 50 games.

• Former Benilde-St. Margaret's standout Adam Weisenburger is in big-league camp with the Milwaukee Brewers for the first time in his young pro career.

Weisenburger was selected in the 34th round of the 2011 draft after attending Miami of Ohio. Last year he was named the best defensive catcher in the Brewers farm system by Baseball America.

• Torii Hunter has played in six spring training games with the Detroit Tigers, who signed him to a two-year, $26 million contract this offseason. The former Twins center fielder is 3-for-17 (.176) with a double, an RBI and two runs scored. He will play right for the Tigers.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com

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