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Updated: January 11th, 2013 8:14pm
Gophers with a chance for best Big Ten start since '97 Final Four run

Gophers with a chance for best Big Ten start since '97 Final Four run

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Gophers left Bloomington, Ind, a year ago, they departed with a prize no other team was able to claim last season.

Unranked and winless in the Big Ten after an 0-4 start, the Gophers shocked the then-No. 8-ranked Hoosiers with a 77-74 victory that stood up as the Hoosiers' only loss in front their raucous Assembly Hall crowd.

But when asked about Indiana, that notable upset isn't the first memory brought up.

"I remember the last time we played them," coach Tubby Smith said pointedly. "That's what I remember."

It was a game that left a lasting sting on the Gophers. With the regular season entering its final week, Indiana had its revenge with a crushing 19-point defeat of Smith's squad within the confines of Williams Arena.

"That one set in a little bit more," senior forward Rodney Williams. "We weren't ready to play at all. They came out here and put it on us pretty bad."

Needless to say, one year later the Gophers are far from the same team that was sternly humbled by Indiana. Since that loss, they have gone 21-4, using a late-season surge and run to the NIT championship to kick-start what has become a program suddenly blossoming in the national spotlight.

Lingering skepticism about the validity of this year's Gophers' squad, who like the last two seasons traversed the non-conference with just one loss, has been set aside in the course of three Big Ten games. A dominating second half performance against No. 12 Illinois Wednesday in Champaign not only served as the Gophers' third victory against a ranked team, but also put them out to their first 3-0-conference start in more than a decade.

Part one of a grueling three-game stretch was a success, but the roadblocks only get tougher to bypass, starting with a return to Indiana Saturday in a match-up with a backdrop drastically different from the one that surrounded their last visit.

Instead of a team with nothing to lose, the Gophers enter the marquee meeting of two of the Big Ten's top squads - No. 5 vs No. 8 - with an opportunity to seize an early foothold in the conference title race and add another layer of momentum in the lead-up to their showdown with Michigan next week.

However, Indiana is well aware the key to winning the Big Ten this season is defending its home-court advantage. Losing to Minnesota in front of the Hoosier faithful in back-to-back seasons, regardless of the new stakes, is a scenario Indiana is primed to avoid.

The Gophers made up for defensive lapses at Illinois with their best shooting outing of the season (77.8% from the floor), but they won't have much leeway against the nation's top rated offense, especially in a hostile environment.

"We have to get back in transition," Smith said. "That's what they do best. They're an outstanding offensive team. Once they get the ball out in transition it is hard to stop them ... They have three of the best players in the country (Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford)."

The task of defending Zeller, Indiana's star forward and projected top-3 2013 NBA draft pick, falls to senior Trevor Mbakwe. Mbakwe gives up four inches to the 7-foot Zeller and doesn't have the same dominant scoring ability, but he has on the slight edge on the offensive and defensive glass, averaging 8.3 rebounds to Zeller's 7.9.

Saturday will mark Mbakwe's first major face-off against one of the country's top big men since battling against Ohio State's Jared Sullinger two years ago. It's a situation after sitting out year out with an ACL tear that he relishes.

"I think we're going to cancel each other out pretty well," Mbakwe said. "I'm just looking forward to the challenge of playing Indiana, as a whole ... Obviously, he's a great player, so he's going to get what he gets, but I'm going to try to affect him as much as I can, and kind of disrupt their offense as much as I can. This is a big challenge for myself and I'm up to it."

The Gophers have themselves in a strong position. Indiana almost has more to lose Saturday, given their status as the home team. A loss in Bloomington likely wouldn't cause significant damage to the Gophers' currently rising stock, barring a major letdown. However, a victory would mean a 4-0 mark in the Big Ten - an accomplishment they have not matched since their 1997 Final Four run (later vacated as a result of NCAA violations).

With 15 more games still in front of them, the Gophers have remained markedly grounded, despite the recognition the team is garnering. But Williams acknowledges the expectations that have taken root within the squad.

"We knew last year with that NIT run, we knew the potential that we had this season.," Williams said. "We definitely think we're capable of making it to the Final Four."

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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