Andy Clayton King/Associated Press file photo
The Minnesota Golden Gophers have been here before.
They’ve steamrolled through cushy nonconference schedules to crack the AP Top 25 and raise some optimism for the season.
Then the Big Ten comes along and roughs them up.
This year, they say they’re different – they’re about to find out.
No. 11 Minnesota (12-1) hosts 19th-ranked Michigan State (11-2) in the Big Ten opener today with a chance to set a new tone. The Gophers have had just two winning records in conference play in the last 15 years.
In the previous two seasons, they’ve gone 23-2 in nonconference play and 12-24 against the heavyweights in their conference.
And they know it.
“We’ve definitely got a lot to prove,” senior forward Rodney Williams said. “We finished, what, 6-12 the last two years? We want to come into the Big Ten season and start off the right way. Usually we come out with a loss in the first game, and that hasn’t ended too well for us in the Big Ten season. So we want to come out and get this ‘W’ right away and see what happens.”
With Trevor Mbakwe healthy, Andre Hollins emerging as a top-flight point guard and more depth than Tubby Smith has ever had at Minnesota, the Gophers head into the Big Ten opener brimming with confidence.
They have the highest ranking since they went to the Final Four in 1996-97 and have a nice mix of athleticism on the perimeter and muscle in the paint to stand up to the rugged schedule that awaits.
Smith has ridden players hard in his first five seasons since coming to Minnesota from Kentucky, a demanding approach that hasn’t always sat well with some of the Gophers. But in his sixth season, he appears to have the mix of tenacious defenders and mentally tough veterans that he’s been looking for.
“This group has really made it a lot of fun coming to practice,” Smith said. “They’re sort of coaching themselves, and that’s what good teams do. It’s kind of like in the classroom when the teacher shows up and people are so excited about learning and being around one another. It makes it easier to teach and coach.”
Mbakwe hasn’t played in a Big Ten game in nearly two years while he’s worked his way back from a torn ACL in his right knee. He came off the bench for the first 12 games but was re-inserted into the starting lineup against Lafayette last week, and he said he’s getting close to being all the way back.
“I’m excited about going up against another top-20 team, especially one that’s coached by coach (Tom) Izzo, one of the best coaches in America,” Mbakwe said. “We’re excited. It’s a New Year’s (Eve) game. It’s a chance for us to really set the tone and send a statement out that we’re serious this year. And we’re all up for the challenge.”
This season could be the most challenging in the Big Ten in years. Six teams are ranked in the top 20, including three ahead of the Gophers.
“We start the Big Ten season off against Michigan State, probably one of the most physical teams in the country. You’re playing against better competition, and we’ll definitely have to limit our turnovers and stuff like that,” Mbakwe said. “We can’t beat ourselves. The level of intensity picks up, and we’re excited for the challenge.”
The Gophers are 1-4 in Big Ten openers under Smith and have lost four in a row to the Spartans, who have shown a knack in the past of deflating Minnesota’s balloon just when things started looking up. So in some ways, the schedule couldn’t unfold any better for the Gophers.
They get a team that has owned them on their floor on the last day of 2012. If this season is going to be different, this game will go a long way toward showing it.
“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.”