Minnesota lives up to new ranking vs. Spartans

MINNEAPOLIS — There’s something about the sound of being a top 10 team. For the Gophers men’s basketball team, it’s a sweet sound indeed.

Minutes before Minnesota tipped off with Michigan State to start the Big Ten season, the new college basketball polls were released. In it, Minnesota moved up from No. 11 to No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, the first time the Gophers have been ranked in the top 10 since they made it to the Final Four during the 1996-97 season.

Rankings mean only so much to Minnesota, which finished nonconference play with just one loss. After taking care of No. 18 Michigan State, 76-63, Monday at Williams Arena, the Gophers talked of bigger goals.

“We want to win the Big Ten championship,” said senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds in the win. “We’re not settling just on winning one or two games against a big opponent. We want to win every game. It’s a big win for us, but we’re looking forward to Northwestern now. We’ve got to keep taking care of business.”

Minnesota eagerly anticipated Monday’s matchup with Michigan State, a team that historically has had the Gophers’ number. Prior to Monday, Minnesota hadn’t beaten the Spartans in a regular-season game since February 2006. The Gophers did top MSU in the Big Ten Tournament in 2010, their only success against coach Tom Izzo’s team in recent years.

But this year’s Gophers are different than the previous teams coach Tubby Smith has had at Minnesota. This team didn’t buckle when the Spartans turned a 13-point Gophers lead into a five-point Minnesota deficit in the second half. Aside from the Battle4Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas in November, most of Minnesota’s games have been comfortable victories for the Gophers.

They certainly hadn’t been tested at home like they were by Michigan State, but Smith’s team answered the call.

“That’s something we’ve been learning how to do,” Smith said of responding to in-game adversity. “We did it well in the Bahamas. We’ve done a good job of that and carrying it over from the NIT Tournament (last year). And finding the leadership. … I think guys are leading by example. It’s about the character and about the heart and about the toughness. Because in this league, or against any team, it’s all about who’s going to be able to win from a mental capacity. It’s not all physical.”

The leadership has come in several forms. Mbakwe and fellow senior Rodney Williams combined for 26 points and 18 rebounds Monday. Sophomore point guard Andre Hollins has also emerged as a leader for the Gophers. He scored 14 of his game-high 22 points in the second half and added a game-high six assists while playing against Michigan State junior point guard Keith Appling.

“We’re tough mentally, and we’re tough on defense,” Hollins said. “Defense wins, and I think that’s what won the game today.”

Defense has been a calling card for the Gophers all season, and it was again Monday when it mattered most. Michigan State shot just 37.5 percent in the second half and didn’t connect from 3-point range after hitting five of six shots from downtown in the first half.

Minnesota also had nine steals and forced 14 MSU turnovers, turning many of those into points. It was a steal by Mbakwe and a resulting dunk by Austin Hollins that seemed to spark Minnesota in the second half. That play gave the Gophers a 59-56 lead after the Spartans had started to gain some confidence following halftime.

Speaking of confidence, the Gophers have it. Now 13-1 and 1-0 to start the Big Ten, Minnesota believes it made a statement with Monday’s win. Sure, the Gophers had victories against No. 19 Memphis, Stanford and Florida State earlier this year, but the rest of their nonconference slate left something to be desired.

So finally, Smith’s team got its first chance to show it can be among the Big Ten elite this season. It’s safe to say the first test has been passed for the No. 9 Gophers, who played like a team worthy of its ranking.

“That definitely has a nice ring to it,” Williams said of being a top 10 team. “In past years, we’ve had chances to move up in the rankings but we weren’t able to do it. It’s good to have the ranking, but we’ve got a bigger target on our back now so we’re going to have to work that much harder every day in practice and come game time.”

Smith knows the significance of Monday’s win, as it gets the Gophers off on the right foot to start conference play. But he was careful not to put too much weight on the victory.

“It is just one game, one of, what, 17 more games in the Big Ten,” Smith said. “Rankings are good. It’s good for a lot of reasons. It’s a confidence builder. It’s good for our fan base. But we know you’ve got to prove it on the court every day.”

The Gophers did just that on Monday, and the rest of the Big Ten was likely taking note.

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