Gophers gear up for brutally tough stretch

To climb higher in the rankings, Minnesota will have to steal a win or two this week.

MINNEAPOLIS — Big Ten basketball is as good as it's been in years, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers are about to endure the hardest part of their schedule in one of the nation's toughest conferences.

Beginning Wednesday at Illinois, Minnesota will have three consecutive games against conference foes ranked among the top-dozen teams in the country. The Fighting Illini are No. 12 in the Associated Press Top-25 poll. From there, the Gophers travel to Bloomington, Ind., on Saturday to face the No. 5 Hoosiers.

Then it's back home on Jan. 17 to host Michigan, the No. 2 team in the country. It's a dizzying schedule that will determine whether Minnesota is worthy of its own lofty No. 8 ranking. To climb even higher, Minnesota will have to steal a win or two on the road this week.

"This is what you come here to play for," Gophers senior Rodney Williams said on Tuesday. "You want to go play against the best, and we want to move up in the rankings, too. In order to do that, we've got to play good teams. We're ready for it."

There's a certain confidence the Gophers carry as they head into the most daunting part of their schedule — as well there should be. Minnesota is off to an impressive 14-1 start with two wins against ranked teams. The Gophers' only loss is to Duke, currently the top-ranked team in the nation.

So as Minnesota travels from Assembly Hall in Illinois to Assembly Hall in Indiana — yes, the two venues have the same name — it has good reason to believe it can win one, if not both, of those games.

"You go to a hostile environment like Champaign and then you back that up two days later and go to Bloomington to play against a top-five team, you couldn't ask for a better schedule," senior Trevor Mbakwe said. "I think that's why we all came here, to play in a conference like this and get tested night in and night out. It's going to definitely be a big test for us. We're up for the challenge."

When Minnesota and Illinois tip off Wednesday night, the Gophers will have to keep pace with the Illini's torrid 3-point shooting pace. Illinois has attempted 411 3-pointers this season, far more than any other team in the Big Ten through Monday — Northwestern is second at 331. But the Illini only have made 36.5 percent of those shots, ranking fifth in the conference.

That's where the Gophers' rebounding prowess should be an advantage. Minnesota ranks second in the Big Ten with 41.3 rebounds per game, and limiting Illinois' second chances off missed 3-pointers will be key.

"They're a team that gets up a lot of 3s," Williams said. "We've got to get out there on their 3s, really push it in transition and get the long rebounds from their 3-pointers."

Minnesota's players insist they're not looking past Wednesday's game to even tougher tests. The focus will be on Illinois until after the final buzzer sounds.

"One game at a time," point guard Andre Hollins said. "It makes it easier when you take it one game at a time and don't worry about the next opponent because you've got to take care of what's in front of you. … We've got tough road matchups with Illinois and Indiana, but right now we're focused on Illinois."

Minnesota already made an early statement with a 76-63 home win against then-No. 18 Michigan State in the conference opener. The Gophers know these next three games will give them three more opportunities to gain attention, not only in the Big Ten but also around the nation.

"We're pretty excited about this team," Mbakwe said. "We have all the pieces. We have the depth, the talent to compete with the best teams in the nation. It's up to us to keep proving it to everybody and to ourselves."

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