Dec 31, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Oto Osenieks (10) celebrates a basket during the first half against the Michigan State Spartans at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

With victory against Spartans, Gophers look Northwest


The Gophers will continue its conference start in the friendly confines of Williams Arena against the Northwestern Wildcats this weekend.

The home court for Minnesota was buzzing during Monday’s victory against Michigan State in the final minutes of the game, with physicality on the court.  The team shot better, rebounded more, and received a big contribution from sophomore Andre Hollins.

Much of that must continue if the Gophers (13-1, 1-0) want to be successful in the Big Ten.

There are few doubters that the Big Ten is the toughest basketball conference this season.  With four teams in the top 10, the conference is extremely physical with well-rounded programs.  The Big Ten is a combined 92 games over .500 as the 12 teams head into the first full weekend of conference games.

Dec 31, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Keith Appling (11) shoots over Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe (32) during the first half at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Tubby Smith and his squad have its toughest stretch of conference games to start.  With the Spartans out of the way, Minnesota must battle Northwestern on Sunday, Jan. 6.

It is one game at a time for Minnesota.

Next on the list is coach Bill Carmody and the Northwestern Wildcats (9-5, 0-1).

The Wildcats are not the same team that started the season in November: their lineup is currently depleted,  the team’s best player, Drew Crawford, is lost for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, and the departure has left a big offensive gap for Northwestern.  Additionally, the status of senior Reggie Hearn is unknown for Sunday’s contest.

The former walk-on is nursing an ankle injury and did not play against Michigan to start Big Ten play.  Hearn has been the main contributor that has stepped up in Crawford’s departure.  The senior is averaging 14.5 points per game while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. Without Hearn and Crawford, the Wildcats are without its two top scoring options from this season.

In its conference opener against Michigan, a dwindling Northwestern squad was manhandled in all aspects of the game at home.  The Wolverines took care of the Wildcats on Thursday, winning 94-66. Five players scored in double digits for Michigan while the leading scorer for the Wildcats was Jared Swopshire with 11 points.

Only three days after its first conference loss, Northwestern will battle against a well-rested Minnesota lineup. The coaching staff revealed on Friday that multiple players are nursing minor ailments.  Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins have lingering injuries along with center Maurice Walker.

The Gophers will have to break the 1-3-1 defensive zone that the Wildcats will play.  The physicality that the team presented against Michigan State will have to endure another battle.  Northwestern likes to slow down the tempo of the game, which is something Minnesota struggled with against the Spartans.  There were two occasions on Monday when no one could break through for the Gophers.

A lack of offensive continuity could continue if both Hollins and Joe Coleman cannot knock down shots from beyond the arc.  The Wildcat defense gave up 13 threes to Michigan on Thursday, and Minnesota will have to take advantage of the same thing.  Andre Hollins is currently shooting over 40 percent from distance, but the Gophers make less than five three-pointers a contest.

The biggest key to victory for Minnesota on Sunday is the continued dominance in the offensive rebounding department.  The Gophers are ranked first in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage while Northwestern has not been ranked in the top 250.  The zone defense will enhance Minnesota’s chances on the glass.

The program has lost its fair share of easy victories over the past few seasons, but that has not been the case against the Wildcats at home.

The Gophers have not lost to Northwestern at Williams Arena in over a decade.

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