Saddle Up: It's go time for the Gophers

January, 13, 2011
1/13/11
6:20
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It thinks you should check out Quickish, because Quickish is pretty great.

No. 8 Purdue at No. 25 Minnesota, 7 p.m. EST, ESPN: Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe spent time in jail this week. For a while there, it appeared Mbakwe -- who missed all of last season while facing felony battery charges stemming from a incident during his time at Miami-Dade Community College -- was not only jeopardizing Minnesota's once-promising season with yet another legal foul-up, but nearing the brink of personal and professional destruction. And all because of Facebook.

A few days later, and Minnesota's season outlook doesn't look nearly as bleak. As it turns out, Mbakwe's message to his ex-girlfriend was inadvisable and nothing more. No, Mbakwe shouldn't have attempted to contact someone who went to very obvious legal means to prevent such contact. But the message in question -- an apology, followed by some boilerplate "hope you're doing OK, everything's good here" ex-boyfriend-style stuff -- was hardly the worst thing in the world.

In the end, Mbakwe -- Minnesota's best player -- won't miss any games. He's been relegated to the bench for tonight's home game against Purdue, but will suffer little else in the way of discipline. That's good news for him, and good news for the Gophers. Why? Tubby Smith's team has officially reached "go-time."

The Gophers haven't begun the Big Ten season well, but that's arguably more a product of a front-loaded schedule than any indictment of the team's performance to date. Minnesota has played at Wisconsin, at Michigan State, and at Ohio State, with only a brief home respite vs. Indiana sandwiched in between. That's probably the toughest four-game slate of Minnesota's schedule, and its record has suffered accordingly. But it's not time to panic yet.

Nor will it be time to panic if Minnesota loses tonight's home game with Purdue. While Smith's team has been struggling, Purdue has been playing some of the best major-conference basketball in the country. The Boilermakers have added a third scorer -- standstill sharpshooter Ryne Smith -- to the potent inside-out attack of dueling Big Ten player of the year candidates E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, and that combination has been lethal so far. Home or not, this is a tough draw for Minnesota, a team that hasn't performed nearly as well as Purdue on a per-possession basis inside its league or out.

In other words, this isn't a must-win. Minnesota has plenty of easier opponents left. But it feels like an important game for these Gophers, not only because of Mbakwe's legal scare this week. A win against Purdue would boost Minnesota's reputation in ways we haven't seen since the team's strong run through the Puerto Rico Invitational in November. It would announce the Gophers yet again as a team to be reckoned with in the Big Ten, as a vastly improved bunch capable of hanging with the Big Ten's elite. And, perhaps most importantly, it would be a nice springboard for the rest of January, when Minnesota will play vs. Iowa, at Michigan, and vs. Northwestern in its next three games.

Everyone's been getting in on the conference road-loss game. This week has seen a multitude of top teams lose to strong opponents on the road. The same thing can happen tonight, and even if the Gophers still have plenty of time to sort through this jumbled mess of a season, well, what better time to start than now?

Everywhere else: Quality ACC game alert (I feel the need to write "alert," because it doesn't happen often this season): Virginia Tech and North Carolina will duel over second-tier league supremacy in Chapel Hill on Thursday night. ... No. 18 Washington continues its impressive run through the Pac-10 thus far with a game at 9-5 Stanford tonight. ... Providence travels to West Virginia for a nationally televised (ESPN2) Big East contest. ... Kevin Anderson and company will look to stay perfect in the A-10 when Rhode Island visits Richmond. ... Old Dominion and Drexel square off in the best mid-major game of the night, and one that could eventually decide the Colonial's regular-season title. ... UCLA will try to avoid the problems that befall other teams against Oregon State when the Bruins travel to Corvallis, Ore. ... USC will hope it enters the Matthew Knight Arena history books as the first team to beat the Ducks in their shiny new arena. ... Washington State is one of the few non-Washington teams in the title chase; the Cougars play at Cal. ... And if you thought Mississippi State, and not Mississippi, would be the team with a better record by the time these two met, you weren't the only one. Instead, thanks in large part to the messy Renardo Sidney situation, the Bulldogs are the unlikely underdogs.

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