MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota has worked hard to overcome the season-ending injury to star Trevor Mbakwe and those four straight losses to open Big Ten play.
Ah, but the challenge for the Gophers has barely begun.
Starting Thursday against rival Wisconsin, they play five of their next six games against teams currently ranked in the Top 25 to close out the month. Next Tuesday, they host No. 3 Ohio State. After a game at Northwestern, Minnesota returns home to face No. 11 Michigan State and No. 23 Indiana. Then there's the rematch with the 21st-ranked Badgers in Madison.
"The good teams that are going to be playing after the season are the teams that do their work. They get it done this time of year," coach Tubby Smith said.
The Gophers have won five of their last seven games, but with so many underclassmen playing key roles and so few victories over NCAA tournament-contending teams, they're arguably one of the conference's most mysterious teams. When they struggle, it isn't pretty with their leading scorer and rebounder Mbakwe wearing a knee brace and watching from the bench.
But there has been enough flash — inspired sequences and clutch contributions by starters and reserves — to create plenty of intrigue about these remaining games. Last season at this point, the Gophers were well into their free fall that resulted in a 17-14 record and Smith's first sub-20-win season since 1993.
"It's crunch time. February and early March is the time you've got to really buckle down and get ready to play and finish out strong, because we know how important that is," said backup center Elliott Eliason.
At 5-6 in the Big Ten and 17-7 overall, the Gophers are squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble. They will probably need a few more wins over quality opponents to put themselves in position for an at-large bid. The good news is they've got plenty of those tough foes left on the schedule.
The hard part is that they have to actually beat them, beginning with the Badgers, who won six straight games until a loss last week to Ohio State.
"We're definitely very excited to play, very anxious and very focused at the same time because we know how much it matters, not only for our fans base in beating Wisconsin but for ourselves and our goals of trying to be in the tournament," Eliason said.
Five of Minnesota's next seven games to finish the regular season are at home.
"I don't care who you're playing. It's better to have it this way," Smith said.
The coach was apparently concerned enough about creating a favorable environment in which to face Wisconsin that a message was sent from his Twitter feed for the first time in more than 15 months. "We need all our Gopher fans fired up!" Smith tweeted.
The first sellout of Williams Arena this season was for the last game there, an overtime win over Illinois.
"The fans were really behind us. It was a battle and I think that really helped us pull it out," said starting small forward Austin Hollins.
As Smith acknowledged, the talent gap is small between his current starting five and the guys who relieve them off the bench. So maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise that the reserves combined for 40 of the 69 points in winning at Nebraska Sunday and 39 of 77 in the victory over Illinois two games before that. The mass substitution Smith has often used to keep legs fresh for defensive pressure and running fast breaks has worked better lately than arguably any other stretch in his five years at Minnesota.
Eliason was sporting stitches on his upper lip Wednesday as a result of a practice collision with starting shooting guard Joe Coleman, one sign of the physical drills and scrimmages they've been having lately. The players are also keenly aware of how critical it is for them to play well over the next three weeks to avoid the letdown of another March without a ticket to the big dance.
"That and then coach Smith is trying to light a fire under us," Eliason said.
No extra motivation is needed when the Gophers play the Badgers, who again have several key players from Minnesota.
"Homegrown kids make a difference, and when they're playing for your rival it makes it even tougher to compete against them," Smith said. "I'm sure they'll come in with their families and everybody, and they'll be fired up to play."
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