Well, coach Tubby Smith and the Gophers have defeated two of the three Big Ten co-champions -- Michigan State and Purdue -- and now they have a real challenge to beat the best of the trio: an Ohio State team that could be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

It's too bad Illinois didn't hang on at the end and beat the Buckeyes, who have the best player in the country in Evan Turner.

But if you want my opinion, the Gophers will definitely get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament if they compete well on Sunday against the Buckeyes.

Yes, a lot of people might be surprised the Gophers have played this well in the Big Ten tournament -- reaching the finals for the first time in history -- but not the coach.

We have a long conversation almost every week, and a couple of days before the team took off for Indianapolis, Mr. Smith was very optimistic his team would go a long way in the tournament.

This man can coach, and he's proved it in the Big Ten tournament.

He has been high on this team all year even though it didn't have Trevor Mbakwe and Royce White because of legal problems and Al Nolen because of academics issues.

"The only real bad game we played was at Michigan," Smith said. "We could have won almost every game. We played good in almost every other game."

Nobody expected Minnesota to beat Purdue 69-42 on Saturday, the most decisive victory a Gophers team has ever scored over the Boilermakers.

But Smith has been talking about how well this team has played defensively all year, and the Gophers really did a good job of shutting down the Spartans and the Boilermakers.

Purdue shot 27.6 percent for the game. A great three-point-shooting team coming in, Purdue was only 2-for-14 on three-pointers, a 14.3 percentage.

You can give seniors Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson a lot of credit for the leadership they provided in making sure this team didn't collapse despite all of the off-the-floor problems this year.

Westbrook and Johnson likely would have left the team had Dan Monson remained as the coach. They couldn't play well in Monson's stystem, but they did a great job under Smith.

Johnson without a doubt is one of the best shot blockers in the country, and he is a great defensive player. While Westbrook didn't play well defensively early, he came around toward the end of the season.

"I lost 40 pounds over the summer," Westbrook said. "Right after the season, I just decided to do it. I knew that it would benefit me and my game, so I just took it upon myself. It was very hard, but I did it. I weighed 220 at the end of last year, and I'm 180 now. I jump higher, I'm quicker, better elevation on my jump shot, my stamina, I'm never tired out there."

Johnson will get a chance in the NBA because he can do a lot of great things.

Works for stadium

Gov. Tim Pawlenty continues to work to see if there is a way to pass a Vikings stadium bill in this legislative session.

Speaking the other day to the Dunkers organization, a club made up of top local business people, Pawlenty talked about how important the Vikings were to this community, that they can't survive in the Metrodome and that, while the current owners won't move the team, the Wilf family could sell it to somebody who might.

The word also is that people working on the stadium have found more ways to build it a lot cheaper than the original $1 billion price. In fact, that price might get down to the $700 million mark.

Target Center contract

Now that Target Corp. has put its name on the Twins baseball stadium, you wonder if it will continue with its name on Target Center, with a contract that ends in September of next year. The company pays the Timberwolves $1.25 million a year for the Target Center naming rights, according to Sports Business Daily.

Meanwhile, the Timber-wolves continue to lose and the management has surprised a lot of fans by offering half-price tickets for the 2011 season.

However, the fans are also reacting with purchases: Timberwolves President Chris Wright reports the franchise has sold 625 new season tickets since the Wolves announced the new policy. In fact, in the first two weeks of the new deal, the Wolves have sold more new lower-level tickets than all last year. There is also is a $10 lower-level ticket. The half-price deal is only for this month.

Jottings

One wonders if the elbow problem Twins reliever Joe Nathan is having started last September. Nathan's September ERAs in the past three seasons were 2.45 in 2007, 2.53 in 2008 and a hefty 4.76 last September. Nathan did have some surgery after the season.

One rumor you hear is that what is holding up the signing of catcher Joe Mauer is that Mauer's agent is willing to have him sign a 10-year deal, but he wants an option to get out of the contract after five years. One thing about Mauer, he has suffered his share of injuries. You wonder if it would be smart for him to wait until he is a free agent after this season, because the contract he would sign now is guaranteed regardless of what happens to him.

Vikings coach Brad Childress, commenting on the signing of former running back Chester Taylor by the Bears and offensive lineman Artis Hicks by the Redskins: "Well, those things, there's two seasons: There's the season that you play and there's the offseason, where you add people on paper, and nobody is going to deny that those are a couple of pretty good football players." However, Childress thought a real good Bears addition was tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, a guy who's very familiar with the multiple-tight end system of offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

Formers Gophers receiver Eric Decker did 19 repetitions at 225 pounds at the Minnesota pro day workout last Wednesday, 15 more than he did at the NFL combine last month. ... One reason ex-Vikings wide receiver Nate Burleson left the Seahawks to sign with the Lions is it reunites Burleson with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Linehan was the Vikings offensive coordinator in 2004, when Burleson had 68 catches for 1,006 yards.

Word continues that Mark Alt, the quarterback for state champion Cretin-Derham Hall who has committed to the Gophers for hockey, might play football at Iowa. But Gophers hockey coach Don Lucia says Alt will definitely be a member of the Gophers hockey team next year.

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