MINNEAPOLIS — Growing up in Minnesota, Rodney Williams heard the stories about just how loud and rambunctious Williams Arena could get back in the team’s glory days. For most of his Gophers career, though, he never experienced the full effect.
When he and Minnesota take the court Thursday against Michigan, “The Barn” likely be the loudest Williams or any of his Gophers teammates have heard it.
“The closest is probably the Michigan State game (earlier this season),” Williams said Wednesday. “Before that, no, I don’t think I’ve experienced how I plan to experience it (Thursday).”
The Wolverines come to Minneapolis as the No. 5 team in the country, while Minnesota sits at No. 9 in the nation. It will be the first time since 1977 that two top 10 teams will have squared off in 85-year-old Williams Arena.
Minnesota has experience playing in rowdy atmospheres this season. The Gophers dropped a game against Indiana at Assembly Hall last weekend, a scene many players described as the craziest they’ve ever experienced.
“Illinois, they had a great crowd. But Indiana, it’s amazing how loud it gets,” sophomore guard Joe Coleman said. “Just for the jump ball, they’re so loud. It just really gets in your head a little bit. You’ve just got to make sure you focus in and not let the crowd get to you.”
Williams hopes the Barn can replicate that experience when Michigan comes to town Thursday. The game is officially sold out, the school announced. Williams Arena seats 14,625, which includes a handful of obstructed view seats in the quirky, antiquated arena.
“Indiana, that’s definitely the rowdiest place I’ve been to,” Williams said. “It gets so loud the rim shakes and the jumbotron is shaking up above.
“That’s what I envision (Thursday) looking like.”
In game of this magnitude, there’s a fine line between being able to enjoy the moment and not letting the moment get the best of you. The Gophers insist they won’t cross it.
“You definitely want to use that to your advantage whenever the opportunity arises,” Williams said of the home crowd. “We’ve got to capitalize on every little thing. The crowd’s an important part of our success.”
There was a chance for Michigan to visit Williams Arena as the No. 1 team in the country for Thursday’s game, but the Wolverines stumbled on the road against No. 15 Ohio State on Sunday in a three-point loss. It Michigan’s first loss of the season.
Several Gophers said they kept a close eye on that Wolverines-Buckeyes game. Williams, for one, was hoping to have a crack at the country’s top team.
“I wanted Michigan to win so they could come in No. 1, but it’s all right. It’s still a very, very big game for us,” Williams said. “We’re ready for it.”
Just like Minnesota, Michigan has a balanced offense. Sophomore guard Trey Burke, whose 18.0 points per game are third best in the Big Ten, leads the Wolverines’ offense. Teammate Tim Hardaway, Jr., is averaging 16.1 points, and two other players — Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III —each chip in more than 12 points per game.
The Gophers, meanwhile, are coming off their first Big Ten defeat of the season at Indiana. After a brutal first half, Minnesota rallied to make a game of it down the stretch before coming up short in an 88-81 loss to the then-No. 5 Hoosiers. But the ninth-ranked Gophers already have three wins against top 25 teams this year, including the Big Ten home opener against No. 18 Michigan State and a road win versus No. 12 Illinois.
Thursday’s game will be the third straight against a top 15 team for Tubby Smith’s Gophers. But now that Minnesota is among the top teams in the country, Smith knows his team should be able to compete with the best.
“The greater the challenge, the greater the reward. I think that’s one of the things that we’re trying to instill in our players,” Smith said. “Our program is reaching a level where we need to play that way.”
Once again, the Gophers will have a chance to prove they can hang with the best teams in the Big Ten — which also happen to be some of the best teams in college basketball.
“We know that we can compete with anyone in the country,” Williams said. “I still think we definitely have a little bit to show to people, especially with a top five team coming in here. In past years, we weren’t able to come out with the victories, so we know that we can play with anybody in the country. We’re ready for the challenge.”