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MINNEAPOLIS – This is one of those weeks in the season that will reveal a lot about Minnesota.
The Gophers have surged to a 14-1 start and a No. 8 ranking, with a loss to No. 1 Duke their only setback. But after winning their first two Big Ten games at home, they must play at No. 12 Illinois on Wednesday and No. 5 Indiana on Saturday.
"I think we'll be ready," said junior Austin Hollins, who swished five 3-pointers in a second-half stretch of 3½ minutes Sunday against Northwestern.
After that game, coach Tubby Smith was asked if he anticipating learning more about his team in these challenging matchups with the Illini and the Hoosiers. He tried to downplay the significance of the games.
"I'm finding something out every day in practice. Every moment there's something new about this group," Smith said.
Following practice on Tuesday, Smith shrugged off again the magnitude of the trip.
"Well, every game is important now, whether it's for the development of the program, development of players or just keeping the momentum we have going," he said.
After this, the Gophers have a game against No. 2 Michigan waiting for them at home on Jan. 17. The reality of the top-heavy conference this season, perhaps even more than usual, is that there will be many weeks just like this.
"Just got to take care of home court and hopefully steal a couple on the road," said senior Trevor Mbakwe, offering a simple but proven plan for Big Ten success.
Keeping up their intense defense is the best way the Gophers can get through these daunting opponents with a glistening record still intact. They're fourth in the conference in both points per game (59.2) and field goal percentage (38.1) allowed, second in rebounding margin (plus-11.1 per game) and first in both steals (9.9) and blocks (6.7) per game.
Wildcats coach Bill Carmody noted an improvement after Sunday's 69-51 win by the Gophers.
"They are guarding, not just going for steals where maybe in the past they've done that a little bit and it opened up some things," Carmody said. "It's more substantial this year that I've seen on the tape. Tough. And if they do go for steals, they've got some of those guys in back that block shots or at least contest shots so you miss."
The Gophers lost their Big Ten opener last season at Illinois in double overtime, one of many winnable games they let get away at the end on their way to a second consecutive 6-12 finish in the conference.
This will be a stark contrast from Northwestern, which tried to drag the pace of the game to a crawl and rely on that 1-3-1 zone defense and Princeton-style, deliberate offense to fluster the Gophers. After a rough first half, they found their groove. The Illini, instead, will try to run as many fast breaks as they can and hoist an equally unhesitant barrage of 3-pointers.
That makes, for Minnesota, a repeat of the sharpshooting performance on Sunday by Hollins (or someone else) more critical.
"If you can shoot the ball well, you can win a lot of games," Smith said. "That solves a lot of problems."
Depth does, too, and the Gophers are counting more contribution from sophomore center Mo Walker and freshman guard Wally Ellenson. Smith said Walker is getting healthier (referring to his problematic shoulder) and lighter (referring to his hard-to-control weight). He also said Ellenson has done well considering the time he lost to a broken hand earlier this season.
"Right now it's tough to get playing time. That's what he's been told from the beginning," Smith said. "So hopefully he'll stay focused, and we'll find opportunities for him to contribute and stay positive, because he can help us."
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