Minnesota puts itself in NCAA discussion

INDIANAPOLIS -- Lawrence Westbrook wasn't sure how Minnesota's overtime upset of Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals would affect the Golden Gophers' NCAA tournament chances.

But the Minnesota senior guard planned to find out. Fast.

"I've got to watch ESPN and see," he said after the 72-67 win. "It can't hurt us. We helped ourselves. We have to be in the discussion, at least. We've just got to keep on playing."

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has the Gophers as the first team out of the NCAA field, but that's certainly an improvement from 48 hours ago, when Minnesota was simply an afterthought. The Gophers, who now have four wins against top 25 teams, likely will move onto the right side of the bubble with a win Saturday against No. 2 seed Purdue in the tournament semis.

"Our loss is hopefully Minnesota's gain," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

They came to Indianapolis after a season of what-ifs and quality losses, which don't help much on the tournament résumé. Arguably no team in America has had a more frustrating string of losses: seven by five points or fewer, four by three points or fewer and 1-point home losses to then-No. 3 Purdue and then-No. 6 Michigan State.

It's why head coach Tubby Smith bristled at a suggestion late Friday that his team was an enigma.

"I didn't see ups and downs," he said. "I saw close losses where we didn't make plays. ... We haven't been far off, and I've been trying to stay positive, telling the guys, 'Don't listen to any garbage. Don't listen to the static. Don't listen to the people that disrespect you.'"

Smith's players might not be listening, but they're certainly aware of how they're perceived. The team dons T-shirts before and after games that contain one word: Respect.

Minnesota earned some on Friday night.

"Every one of these games is our last chance," said center Colton Iverson, with the "Respect" T-shirt hanging from his neck. "I feel like we came with more intensity [than Michigan State]. We had more to play for.

"I'm not on the committee, but I hope people are looking at us."

Those who tuned in Friday saw a talented team that seems to be clicking at the right time. They saw a team that out-toughed an Izzo-coached squad, which is never easy to do. They saw a team getting big contributions from Iverson (12 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks), forward Damian Johnson (8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks) and guard Blake Hoffarber (14 points, 5 rebounds).

They also saw a team following a new leader, Devoe Joseph, who took over the point guard duties from Al Nolen after Nolen was ruled academically ineligible. Joseph racked up 17 points, four assists and six rebounds Friday, blending a shooting guard's mentality with his new role as floor leader. He hit two 3-pointers in the extra session, including a game-tying triple with 4:12 left.

"I was very composed and just very excited to win the game," Joseph said. "I was in the zone, to the point where I wasn't really thinking too much."

Added Smith: "He's a clutch performer."

Perhaps the same can start to be said about this Minnesota team, which was about as un-clutch as they come for most of the season. The Gophers are two wins away from a tournament title and an automatic berth, and they think they can get there.

"I have as much confidence in this team as any team I've ever coached," Smith said. "The sky's the limit."

In the post-game locker room, Joseph huddled with Iverson and several other players. They put their hands together and counted off, "1-2-3!" But instead of punctuating the cheer with "Win!" or "Big Ten champs!" they simply exhaled and started laughing.

They'd earned the right to breathe easy. At least for a night.