Gophers have something to prove in Big Ten

MINNEAPOLIS — If anyone is champing at the bit for Big Ten play to start, it’s Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe.

The Gophers senior forward missed the entire conference season last year after tearing his ACL in a game against Dayton last November. That means his last Big Ten game was on March 10, 2011 — nearly two years ago.

“Has it been that long?” Mbakwe said Saturday, one day shy of the one-year anniversary of his knee surgery. “I’m definitely looking forward to it.  . . . It’s a chance for us to really set the tone and set a statement and show everybody we’re serious this year. We’re up for the challenge.”

And the Big Ten schedule will no doubt be a challenge. As of this weekend, the conference boasted six teams in the AP top 25, including the No. 11 Gophers. Minnesota’s first Big Ten opponent, Michigan State, is ranked No. 19. By the time that game comes Monday afternoon, there’s a good chance four of the top 10 teams will be from the Big Ten.

From top to bottom, the conference is as strong as it’s been in years.

“It is pretty talented,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said of his league. “I think there’s a lot of NBA potential in the Big Ten. It’s probably got more depth.  . . . I think this year and in the near future, a lot of excellent players, very talented players in the Big Ten.”

Monday’s matchup against the Spartans has Minnesota players excited to show what they can do. The Gophers breezed through nonconference play, finishing 12-1 with the lone loss to then-No. 5 Duke. Minnesota had impressive wins against No. 19 Memphis, Stanford and Florida State all in a row. Aside from that stretch, though, the Gophers’ nonconference competition wasn’t much of a test.

Everything changes now that the Big Ten season is here.

“We’re playing against teams that can match up with us a lot better, so we’re going to have to really buckle down, focus on playing Gopher basketball,” said senior Rodney Williams, who leads Minnesota in scoring through 13 games. “We’re going to have to hit the boards a lot harder, play better transition defense against Michigan State, because those are the two things those guys are really good at is rebounding and transition. We don’t have to change too much, but the intensity picks up a little bit.”

The Gophers haven’t won a Big Ten opener since the 2009-10 season. Last year, Minnesota started out 0-4 in conference play after a 12-1 nonconference start.

With expectations higher than they’ve been in a long time, the Gophers don’t want to stumble when the conference season begins.

“It’s really important, especially in the Big Ten. You’ve got to take care of your home (court),” Mbakwe said. “You’ve got to win all your home games and hope to sneak a few wins on the road.  . . . I think it’s a really important game for us to get off on the right (foot) in the Big Ten.”

The 19th-ranked Spartans started their season with two tough games. MSU lost to No. 23 Connecticut to open the year and then beat No. 7 Kansas by three at a neutral location. Since then, a loss on the road to Miami is the only other blemish on Michigan State’s schedule.

The Spartans enter Big Ten play with two of the conference’s top rebounders. Senior Derrick Nix is second in the league with 7.8 boards per game, and junior Adreian Payne is right behind him in third (7.5 rpg). Mbakwe leads the Gophers with 7.2 rebounds per game and knows Monday’s contest could be decided on the glass.

“That’s definitely one of the points of emphasis by Coach, the way they rebound the ball,” Mbakwe said. “They’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. We’re going to have our hands full with them.”

But that’s what Minnesota wants: to face the best teams in the conference. Because the Gophers feel they can be one of those teams.

“We can definitely contend for a Big Ten title, and we know that,” Williams said. “We’ve just got to come out and prove that to everybody else.”

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