With time to catch its collective breath after a week on the road, Minnesota returns home as a ranked team filled with confidence.
The No. 21 Golden Gophers hope to maintain their early success when they host North Florida on Saturday.After following up a loss to then-No. 5 Duke with wins over previously ranked Memphis and Stanford at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas last week, Minnesota (7-1) concluded its stretch of four games in six days with a 77-68 victory at Florida State on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge."We're just happy to come back from this road trip 3-1," forward Rodney Williams Jr. said.Playing as a ranked team for the first time since Jan. 31, 2011, the Gophers jumped out to a 7-0 lead and led by as many as 15 in the first half against the Seminoles. Joe Coleman had 16 points while Williams added 14 as Minnesota held Florida State to 37.9 percent shooting to prevail in its first true road game.Since Duke shot 54.4 percent in the 89-71 victory over the Gophers on Nov. 22, Minnesota has held its next three opponents to 39.4 percent shooting and forced 43 turnovers."It's been a good run for us and to come into Tallahassee here, on the road, against a very tough team, we knew we'd have to play well," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "We have competed against some good competition. You never know until you play the next game just how much your team is improving, so I thought we took another step in the right direction."Unlike 2011-12 when they started 12-1 then went 6-12 in the Big Ten, the Gophers hope to sustain their success for the entire season. With five of its top six scorers back from last season's 23-15 squad that lost to Stanford in the finals of the NIT, Minnesota has the potential to pose a consistent threat in the conference and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.At 14.1 points per game, Williams leads a group of four Gophers averaging in double figures. The sophomore Coleman (10.0 ppg) has totaled 27 on 13-of-21 shooting in the last two games.Though Minnesota has won 18 consecutive home games against non-conference opponents, and its four this season by an average of 26.5 points, Saturday's visitor is no stranger to facing major competition. North Florida (3-4) might sport a losing record, but three of those defeats came at Memphis, Kansas State and Florida State. The Ospreys, who've been outscored by an average of 14.0 points in those defeats, also face Pittsburgh next weekend."One thing I can count on with our guys is that they are going to compete," North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll said after his team's 75-67 loss to the Seminoles on Nov. 21.The Ospreys are led by senior guard Parker Smith (17.1 ppg), who is averaging 20.0 points in the last three games. He had 18 as North Florida rolled to a 72-47 home win over Florida A&M on Thursday.