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Gophers are 7-0 entering Big Ten schedule, but they know now it gets ‘real’

Michigan State awaits as Minnesota opens conference play Wednesday night

At 7-0 and coming off two straight road wins over high-major opponents, the Gophers men’s basketball team is riding high.

But will this be the pinnacle?

Minnesota opens Big Ten play at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Williams Arena against one of the stiffest tests in the conference — 19th-ranked Michigan State (7-2).

“I don’t think you want it any other way than to play against this team right now,” Gophers first-year head coach Ben Johnson said.

On Monday, Johnson asked his two veterans — point guard Payton Willis and center Eric Curry — to share with the 12 other newcomers what it’s like to play against the Spartans. Johnson has his own first-hand experience from his playing days, from 1999-2004.

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“They haven’t changed much in terms of their identity from when I played,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be the first time, and I told them the first down screen, that is live. It’s real. That first flare screen, that is real. The first time they bring it in transition off a (made basket), that is real.”

The Gophers’ first road win of the season came over Pittsburgh, 54-53, on Nov. 30, but the Panthers are 190th in the country in the Ken Pom rankings. Then they beat Mississippi State, 81-76, on Sunday, and the Bulldogs are ranked 46th.

Mississippi State has Big-Ten-like size and athleticism to prep the Gophers for what they will see in Big Ten play, which continues Saturday against Michigan. After that, Minnesota has three nonconference games to close 2021, then 18 conference games through March.

“That was the part that was encouraging,” Johnson said about the Mississippi State game. “It’s not like you are going to roll out in the league and see bodies that are different than that. Those are SEC bodies. That was good for our guys to finally face that, and face it on the road in adversity, and hopefully that should give them confidence.”

Johnson’s news conferences the day before games have been sparsely attended this year, with maybe two print reporters and a TV station or two. On Tuesday, there were six reporters and a line of TV cameras.

The increased attention comes with it being the Big Ten opener against a quality opponent — the Spartans are 22nd in Ken Pom. But Minnesota’s undefeated start is a driving force.

Johnson has been trying to guard against his players reading too much into the praises they’ve received, whether it be traditional or social media, and he’s used Alabama football coach Nick Saban’s clip about how the media’s praise can be fatal “rat poison” if consumed.

“Not that the media is bad,” Johnson said. “… You know how it is with social media, somebody is going to start loving you up a little bit. …Getting great media coverage and you are getting more ats and likes than you’ve ever had before.

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“Are you gonna change? Or are you going to be who you are? Are you going to let it go to your head? Or get complacent? Or are you still going to be hungry for more? The point is we want more. This can’t be the highlight of the year that we got to this point.”

Added Curry, “We just don’t let that rat poison get in. We just don’t mind it. We are going to keep trying to develop each and every game, and take every game as a lesson.”

For the Gophers to keep winning and improving, they will need to find ways to overcome issues in rebounding, lack of depth and limited scoring options.

“We can’t get away from what got us here,” Johnson said. “We can’t all of sudden now think we’re cute and sexy. We’ve got to be the same guys that we are every day that have a chip on our shoulder, that have something to prove and that are the hunters.”

For Johnson, the Big Ten opener will be a measuring stick against the most-experienced coach in the conference, Tom Izzo. They both got their current jobs at age 40, but Izzo has been doing his for 25 years.

When Johnson was hired in March, Izzo called to congratulate him. They first got to know each other when Izzo recruited Johnson as a sophomore at DeLaSalle High School in the 1990s.

“(He) couldn’t have been more excited for me,” Johnson said of hearing from Izzo last spring. “Like I said, that is a guy that I have a ton of respect for.”

Johnson said he talked to Izzo about a bunch of topics at Big Ten Media Day in Indianapolis.

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“If you are not trying to pick apart how he did it, you’re at fault,” Johnson said. “I’m excited to see where we are at vs. him and vs. his team.”

Briefly

The Gophers’ sixth man, guard Sean Sutherlin, is a game-time decision with a knee injury, Johnson said Tuesday. Sutherlin, who is third on the team in scoring at 9.2 points per game, missed the Mississippi State game on Sunday.

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