MINNEAPOLIS -- With the way Big Ten has fluctuated this season, maybe the Gophers aren't out of it quite yet.
With a convincing 75-52 win over visiting Northwestern on Sunday, Minnesota has reeled off three straight conference victories after starting the Big Ten season 0-4. With a 3-4 record in the conference, the Gophers are still in the thick of things despite their slow start.
"It just shows that the conference is mixed up right now," said Minnesota freshman Joe Coleman, who scored a team-high 16 points in Sunday's win. "But it shows that we can still win games and we weren't just at the bottom of the Big Ten for a bad reason. We were just in a slump and we got out of it."
The Gophers' victory over the Wildcats came after wins on the road against then-No. 8 Indiana and unranked Penn State. But Sunday was Minnesota's first Big Ten win at home this season, as it had previously lost by two to Iowa and by 13 to Purdue.
"It was critical. It's important. It's huge," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said of getting the first conference win at Williams Arena. "We hadn't played well here, losing to Iowa and Purdue the way we did in front of our fans. It was a very disappointing two games. We owed it to ourselves, owed it to our fans and to everyone."
Sunday's balanced effort was a sign that perhaps the Gophers are figuring things out without star forward Trevor Mbakwe, who is out for the year after tearing his ACL in late November. All five Minnesota starters scored in double-figures Sunday, including 14 from point guard Julian Welch. Rodney William and Austin Hollins each chipped in 11, while Ralph Sampson III scored 10.
Coleman, a freshman from Hopkins (Minn.) High School, was inserted into the Gophers' starting lineup against Purdue on Jan. 8. Since then, Minnesota has won three of its four games, and Coleman has been a big reason why.
Smith said the freshman has also added something that was lacking a bit in the starting lineup: toughness.
"We've been right there the whole time. It's just a matter of executing, making plays at the end, making shots," Smith said. "We've added some toughness to our lineup when we inserted Joe Coleman. It's been huge for us. I think it's been contagious, because I see Ralph is more aggressive, Rodney's been more aggressive taking the ball to the basket. So I think our entire team has certainly benefitted."
Prior to Sunday's game, Smith wouldn't give his team too much praise for its back-to-back road wins. Despite an impressive effort Sunday afternoon, the fifth-year Gophers coach again warned against making too much out of the victory.
"It's only one game, as I've said before. You have to prove yourself every day in practice -- and improve," Smith said. "So we've got a lot to improve on. Certainly, we know that we have a lot of games to play and that we are not close to where we need to be."
For those who watched Sunday's game, it would appear as if the Gophers are closer to that point than Smith makes them sound. Minnesota jumped out to an early 11-0 lead as the Wildcats missed their first 15 shots. A 17-point cushion at halftime was plenty for the Gophers to cruise to their third straight win.
Defensively, Williams held Northwestern forward John Shurna, the Big Ten's leading scorer, to 21 points on 8-of-21 shooting. Williams had three blocks in the game and a team-high four steals.
In fact, the defense might soon become Minnesota's calling card if it continues its current trend. While the Gophers once struggled to defend the 3-point shot, they are now preventing opponents from hurting them from long range. Northwestern was 8-of-26 (30.8 percent) from downtown Sunday, well below the 36.2 percent clip that opponents had been shooting against the Gophers.
"We hadn't been playing bad. We were just shooting ourselves in the foot lots of times," Smith said of the defense. "I thought we should have had at least two to three more wins. Having said that, we've always been a good defensive team."
Riding a wave of confidence and a rise in momentum after three straight wins, Minnesota now has to travel to face No. 9 Michigan State on Wednesday before coming home to host Illinois on Saturday. It will mean a stretch of three games in seven days after the Gophers had a week to prepare for Northwestern.
For now, though, Smith said they'll enjoy the win for what it's worth as they continue to claw their way back into the thick of the Big Ten.
"It feels good to have three wins, but I'd much rather have four, five or six wins," Smith said. "I'm happy to get the win, don't get me wrong. There's a lot more games to go, and I'm looking at tomorrow's practice and figuring out what we've got to get ready for. That's the way it has to be, or I couldn't coach."
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