INDIANAPOLIS—The Minnesota basketball team showed up for this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the word “RESPECT.”
After Friday’s 72-67 quarterfinal upset of Michigan State, the sixth-seeded Golden Gophers are well on their way to earning some.
“Anybody wants to earn respect in anything they do,” senior Lawrence Westbrook said. “So we’re just going to play hard, and if we do that we have enough talent to compete with anybody.”
Indeed, while all the attention this weekend was on the Big Ten’s top four teams (a quartet of Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, and Wisconsin that seemed head and shoulders above the rest of the league), it’s the Cinderella Gophers that are making headlines.
Don’t look now, but Minnesota is undoubtedly moving the right way on the NCAA bubble and could be one of those teams no one wants to play when March Madness kicks off next week.
The Gophers are dangerous because of Devoe Joseph, he of the 17 points and back-to-back long-distance daggers in overtime. Whether it’s confidence, cockiness, or something in between, Joseph was willing and ready to take the big shot every time it looked like the Spartans had Minnesota on the ropes.
“I think the sky’s the limit for us,” Joseph said as he pondered his team’s postseason chances. “We’ve got as much talent as any team in the Big Ten and in the country.”
The Gophers are dangerous because of Lawrence Westbrook, who’s embracing the challenge of shutting down opponents’ stars, not just scoring himself. Westbrook was key in frustrating Penn State’s Talor Battle and Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas the past two days.
“I really like playing against guys like that because it pushes me and it shows I can do another part of my game,” said Westbrook.
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith knows his team is in good hands with Joseph’s offensive potential and Westbrook’s defensive mindset.
“Guys like Devoe, Westbrook, you’re not going to find any guys with bigger hearts and mentally tougher than those two,” Smith said.
The Gophers are dangerous because of Blake Hoffarber’s silky-smooth jump shot. Hoffarber, one of the nation’s leaders in three-point percentage, knocked down four triples in the upset of Michigan State.
The Gophers are dangerous because of the height and inside presence of Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson. Sampson, in particular, sees great things in his team’s future as March wears on.
“Third time’s the charm,” the seven-footer told me after his team finally broke through against the Spartans. “We’re coming into Purdue [Saturday’s semifinal] with the same mentality, because it’s our third time playing them as well.”
Lastly, the Gophers are dangerous because of Tubby Smith, who ensured what seems like his hundredth straight 20-win season (okay, it’s only 17) with Friday night’s victory. Smith has done a masterful job of helping his team overcome adversity and bringing them to Indianapolis with a hunger and focus that should carry over to a possible run in the Big Dance.
“I’ve been staying positive and telling those guys, ‘Don’t listen to the garbage, don’t listen to the static, don’t listen to the people that disrespect you. Concentrate on what we have to get done and we’ll be fine.’”, Smith said.
So who wants to play the Gophers with the season on the line? Show of hands? Anybody? Bueller?
I didn’t think so.
Of course, an invite to March Madness is not 100 percent guaranteed. There’s still work for Minnesota to do here at Conseco Fieldhouse.
“We know for us to get in there, we have to get quality wins,” said Westbrook. Another upset victory over the Boilermakers Saturday is probably the bare minimum, but don’t tell that to recently vanquished MSU coach Tom Izzo.
“They’re a tournament team,” Izzo said simply. “All in all, our loss is hopefully Minnesota’s gain and hopefully the Big Ten’s.”
Hoffarber thinks the only way to make sure his team is playing in the NCAA tournament is to come away with the Big Ten trophy in Indy. “Win the tournament,” he said in the locker room after his team’s latest statement victory.
If the Gophers do cut down the nets in Indianapolis, the respect they so desperately crave is sure to follow.
Get those Cinderella slippers ready.
For more Bleacher Report coverage from the Big Ten Tournament, follow Tim on Twitter at @TimCary.