MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers forward Rodney Williams was asked this week which part of his team’s Thanksgiving tournament he was more excited about: a free trip to the Bahamas, or the opportunity to face perennial powerhouse Duke in the first game.
The senior chose the diplomatic answer.
“Playing Duke,” Williams said. “Growing up watching Duke, you always wanted to either play for a team like that or go play against a team like that. For it to finally happen for me, I know I’m definitely really happy about it.”
Of course, Williams later added: “The Bahamas is always a plus.”
Thursday’s game is part of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, which includes eight teams. Along with the No. 5 Blue Devils, second-ranked Louisville, No. 13 Missouri and No. 19 Memphis are among the other ranked teams in the Bahamas this weekend. Northern Iowa, Virginia Commonwealth and Stanford round out the eight-team field.
Minnesota will enter the tournament unranked, but barely. The 4-0 Gophers received 93 votes in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, making them the first team in the “others receiving votes” category.
A win against Duke would surely catapult Minnesota into the Top 25 polls. It would also go a long way in putting the Gophers on the college hoops map.
“It’s definitely a chance for us to put our name out there on a national level,” Williams said. “Not only with Duke being a good team in that tournament, but a lot of other good teams. … This tournament is a big tournament for us, no matter who we play in it.”
Duke is led by seniors Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. Plumlee has averaged 21.7 points and 8.7 rebounds in his team’s first three games, while Curry — brother of NBA guard Stephen Curry — has added 16.0 points. Kelly, a 6-foot-11 forward, has blocked 1.3 shots per game while adding 10.7 points.
Of the Blue Devils’ three wins, one was particularly impressive: a 75-68 victory over then-No. 3 Kentucky. There’s little doubt Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski will have his team ready for this weekend’s eight-team tournament filled with plenty of ranked schools.
“They’re just a tough team,” Gophers senior Trevor Mbakwe said of the Blue Devils. “They’re well-coached. They always play hard. … You get a chance to play against Coach K, who’s probably the best college coach out here. It’s going to be a big opportunity to prove ourselves to the country.”
Minnesota’s win Sunday against Richmond was a good test for the Gophers as they prepare for Duke. Prior to Sunday’s 72-57 win over the Spiders, Minnesota had coasted to wins in its first three regular-season games.
Against Richmond, however, the Gophers trailed in the second half and had to battle back to take the lead before eventually pulling away to a victory at Williams Arena.
“That tells you and shows what you’re made of,” said Gophers coach Tubby Smith. “You can’t really set those type of situations up. You try to in practice, but the best way to learn is out here on the basketball court in a real game. I think it was a valuable experience, a valuable game to learn from that.”
After Thursday’s game against Duke, the Gophers will either play Memphis or Virginia Commonwealth in their second game. For now, all their focus is on the Blue Devils. Surely, Minnesota will play some stiff competition during the Big Ten season. Indiana is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, and several of the other schools in the conference are also in the Top 25.
But this is Duke, one of the most storied programs in college basketball. Regardless of that fact, though, the Gophers are trying to treat Thursday’s matchup as simply the next one on the schedule.
“We’ve got to go in treating it like another game,” Williams said. “If we go in there and embrace it and look at it like they’re that much better than us, then who knows how we come out and play. So we’ve just got to go out and treat it like another game, come out and play how we know how to play ball and not worry about the name on the jersey.”
Minnesota knows it can’t let the sandy beaches and warm weather of the Bahamas be a distraction, either. The Gophers are down there for one reason only, and that’s to play basketball.
“It’s definitely a business trip,” Mbakwe said. “We’ve been looking forward to it, especially when we found out we play Duke the first game. We’re all excited. We get to go to some warm weather and play against some of the best teams in the country.”