Minnesota-Northwestern has postseason feel
MINNEAPOLIS — Ten days ago, the Gophers men's basketball team appeared dead in the water. Minnesota was 0-4 to start the Big Ten schedule after a 12-1 record in non-conference play.
But following back-to-back road wins against then-No. 8 Indiana and unranked Penn State, the Gophers are back on track — at least temporarily.
"Whenever you win, your attitude and energy is a little bit better," head coach Tubby Smith said Saturday, one day before his team hosts Northwestern at Williams Arena. "I've seen that, a little bit chippier. It's easier to come to practice and accept coaching. … But we've still got a lot of things to learn, a lot to do. We're only 2-4, so we're really still not very good yet."
Three of Minnesota's first four Big Ten losses were narrow defeats. The Gophers lost in double overtime to Illinois on the road, but five at then-No. 16 Michigan, and by two at home to Iowa. Minnesota lost by 13 at home to Purdue, but then went on the road to collect its first two Big Ten wins of the season.
One common thread in the two recent wins? The Gophers contained their opponents from three-point range, something they had struggled with all season. Indiana — the top 3-point shooting team in the conference — was just 4-for-18 from downtown (22.2 percent). The Nittany Lions didn't fare much better from outside, connecting on 7-of-24 shots (29.2 percent) from 3-point range.
But Minnesota will have another tough test Sunday, as Northwestern is second in the conference in 3-point shooting (37.5 percent).
"We know we're going up against a very talented team," Smith said of the Wildcats. "We've tried to get out on the 3-point shooters better. I think it's been beneficial to us. That's what we've done. We've done a good job switching to make them catch the ball a little bit farther from the basket."
In order to keep the momentum rolling, the Gophers will have to stop John Shurna and Drew Crawford, the conference's first and third-leading scorers, respectively. Shurna is averaging 19.1 points per game, while Crawford has scored 17.6 per game.
If Minnesota can slow them down, perhaps it can win its first Big Ten home game and keep the winning streak rolling.
"I'd just saying (we're) being more aggressive," freshman guard Joe Coleman said of his team's two recent wins. "It kind of seemed like we were playing not to lose. We've got to play to win. We've got get out there aggressive and be assertive while we're out there. …
"Do whatever we were doing on the road. Same pregame, everything. Just hope it follows us back."
Walker to redshirt
Sophomore forward Mo Walker will redshirt this season after having what Smith called a "minor setback" in November from a knee surgery he had last January.
The 6-foot-10 Walker hasn't played yet this season after tearing his posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee during a game in late December of last season.
With senior forward Trevor Mbakwe out for the season with a torn ACL, the Gophers could have used Walker's size in the post. But doctors and Smith felt Walker wasn't ready to return to action.
"Coach kind of made the decision for me. I've been working since the beginning of the season and the offseason to just come back," Walker said Saturday. "It was just decided with him and the trainers and myself that I would redshirt this season. … They just don't feel like I'm ready yet. They want to wait until it's 100 percent until I play again."
Walker said there is still some slight pain in the knee at times and issues with his strength, but he said it "feels good." Still, the Gophers want to play it safe and not burn a year of eligibility if Walker's minutes will be limited.
"He wasn't ready," Smith said. "When you have to shut a guy down for four or five weeks in his situation, he'd been sitting out for nine months so now he can't do much. So it would just be a waste of a year to try to play him. It's not going to be good for him to do that. In his best interest, it's the best thing to do."