Minnesota hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005, but all signs point to a return trip to the tourney, assuming the Gophers get through a February slate that only includes two home games.
The Gophers did themselves a favor Thursday by ending a 20-game losing streak against No. 19 Illinois. Although the streak will get the most attention, the fact that Minnesota beat a ranked team in the regular season, something it couldn’t do last year, suggests that this Gophers team is legit.
The fact that they topped Illinois by 23 points might mean this team is a contender for the Big Ten crown a year earlier than most anticipated.
Minnesota still faces the possibility of a late-season letdown. Next week, the Gophers face Michigan State and Ohio State on the road. After the way they played against Illinois and in their upsets of Wisconsin and Louisville, however, it’s hard to bet against Minnesota.
MINNESOTA 59, ILLINOIS 36: No. 19 Illinois had beaten Minnesota 20 times in a row, a streak that dated back to the late 1990s. With Illinois coming to the Barn with a two-game winning streak and one of the most well-rounded teams in the league, there were few signs that history was about to end.
But Minnesota (18-3, 6-3 Big Ten) pulled off one of the greatest victories in team history. It was the largest margin of victory over a ranked opponent for Minnesota, and no team had held Illinois (17-4, 5-3) under 40 points since 1985.
Want more history? Illinois’ 36 points were the second-fewest points allowed in team history for Minnesota.
Lawrence Westbrook’s 15 points led all scorers. Gophers teammates Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson combined for 16 points and 13 rebounds.
Minnesota led 22-16 at halftime but outscored Illinois 37-20 in the second half.
Maybe it was the leap in quality of opponents, or the way defenders were attacking Al Nolen. More than likely, it was a little of both. In any case, Nolen is trying to pull out of a mini-slump that sent the Gophers’ offense smoking and clanking into the garage.
Nolen had five assists and a whopping 11 turnovers total in games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue. Not surprisingly, Minnesota lost two of the three in its first rough stretch of the season.
Nolen played much better in a Jan. 25 victory against Indiana — a victory much closer than it should have been considering it was against the worst team in the league. Still, Nolen’s six assists and one turnover were a welcomed sight for coach Tubby Smith, who was never overly concerned about the slump.
One good game against a woeful Hoosiers squad does not automatically mean Nolen is back, but it’s a good start.
“We’re at the point now where teams have had plenty of time to scout you and put you in situations where you’re uncomfortable — forcing you to your weak hand and things,” Smith said. “I think he’s being a little too cautious, to be honest. We want him to be more aggressive in passing the ball and trusting your teammates.”
Trust in a deep roster is what carried Minnesota near the top of the Big Ten standings. It’s also the real shot the Gophers have in staying there.
“We want to stay on pace and keep our eye on the goal,” Smith said. “To compete in the Big Ten and stay in the hunt, you have to find ways to win.”
Ralph Sampson III is coming into his own. He’s scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in his last two games, both wins for the Gophers. His feathery touch around the rim is getting him noticed around the Big Ten. Before Indiana lost to Minnesota over the weekend, Hoosiers coach Tom Crean had a conversation with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo about Sampson. Izzo’s message: “He’s due for a breakout.” He had 13 points, eight rebounds and six blocks against the Hoosiers.
Tubby Smith is still amazed by the way leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook finds a way to hit shots, in spite of his 6-foot frame. The Gophers are 15-3 when he scores in double figures. He scored 15 points against Illinois. There’s no question on this team: Westbrook is the go-to guy.
The Gophers continue to struggle away from Williams Arena. They have managed to go 5-1, though, despite finding themselves in significant deficits in every road game this season.
The victory at Assembly Hall snapped a long drought for the Gophers, who hadn’t won in Bloomington, Ind. since Feb. 18, 2004.
IN FOCUS: The Gophers get a six-day layoff before returning to action in a critical midseason game at East Lansing. The Spartans won the teams’ first meeting of the season, taking a 70-58 decision in Minneapolis on New Year’s Eve.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We want to stay on pace and keep our eye on the goal. To compete in the Big Ten and stay in the hunt, you have to find ways to win.” — Coach Tubby Smith
Northwestern 74, Minnesota 65
Purdue 70, Minnesota 62
Minnesota 67, Indiana 63
Minnesota 59, Illinois 36
at Michigan State, Wednesday, Feb. 4
at Ohio State, Saturday, Feb. 7