Smith: ‘Crunch time’ has arrived for Gophers

MINNEAPOLIS — If Tubby Smith tweets about it, you know it must be a big game.

Smith, the head coach of the Minnesota basketball team, tweeted (@CoachTubbySmith) on Wednesday for the first time in more than a year. His message one day before his Gophers hosted rival Wisconsin was simple:

“We are working hard to get ready for the Badgers tomorrow night. We need all our Gopher fans fired up!”

Smith knows the importance of Thursday’s game at Williams Arena. His Minnesota squad is coming off a road win at Nebraska but has work to do to secure a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers are 17-7 and 5-6 in the Big Ten after starting conference play 0-4. They’re playing without star senior Trevor Mbakwe, who tore his ACL on Nov. 27 against Dayton.

One thing in Minnesota’s favor is its remaining schedule: Five of the Gophers’ final seven games will be played at Williams Arena. While that schedule includes games against two of the conference’s top teams, No. 21 Wisconsin and No. 3 Ohio State, Smith sees it as a great opportunity for his squad.

“I’m excited about tomorrow’s game, and that’s about as far as I can look,” Smith said Wednesday. “This is the crunch time of the year. The good teams, the teams that are going to play after the season are the teams that do their work. They get it done this time of the year, and they come up with the wins and the big plays.”

A win in their next two games would bolster the Gophers’ tournament hopes. As it stands, Minnesota is viewed by many as a bubble team, needing a few big wins to sneak into the tournament. The Gophers’ 5-6 conference record puts them at seventh in the Big Ten, tied with Purdue and Iowa. Minnesota lost its only game against Purdue and was swept in two close games by Iowa.

Smith said the team has a lot of work to do if it wants to make it to the postseason.

“I don’t like where we sit. I don’t like that we’re under .500 in the league,” Smith said. “We’re in a position where that’s all we can focus on because we’re a team that’s got to do a lot of work. We’ve got a lot of things we have to accomplish between now and tomorrow and the end of the season if we want to play any postseason play at all.”

The Gophers players insist they’re not too focused on the so-called “bracketology.”

“We just go out there and try to compete in every game,” sophomore guard Austin Hollins said. “Every game’s important, so we’re trying to go out there and win them all and do the best we can.”

After hosting Wisconsin and OSU, Minnesota will also host Michigan State, Indiana and Nebraska. The Gophers travel to Northwestern and Madison later this month.

Before that, the Gophers must get past a Wisconsin team that has three key Minnesota natives on its roster. The Badgers are led by senior point guard Jordan Taylor, a Bloomington, Minn., native who played for Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Taylor is averaging a team-high 14 points and 4.4 assists per game. Minnesota’s young guards will have their hands full guarding Taylor.

“They’ve got an excellent leader in Jordan Taylor,” Smith said. “He’s a guy that the way he goes is the way they go.”

Joining Taylor as Minnesotans playing for Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan are St. Paul’s Mike Bruesewitz and Princeton, Minn., native Jared Berggren. The two junior post players are second and third, respectively, in rebounding for Wisconsin.

The three Minnesotans combine to make up 60 percent of the Badgers’ starting lineup and nearly 50 percent of Wisconsin’s scoring. As if either side needed extra motivation, the Border Battle factor always adds intrigue when these two teams play.

“I’m sure they’ll come in with their families and everybody and they’ll be fired up to play,” Smith said. “Obviously we’ll have our reasons for playing hard. We still believe we’re a team that we’ve got a lot to play for. We have a chance to get ourselves and build on what we did the other day, and that’s what we’re trying to do. I like our kids’ attitude. I like the way they’re playing. I like our team.”

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