* The chatter centers, of course, on just how many games the 'Cats need to win in the Big Ten tourney to assure themselves their school's first bid to that tourney sponsored by NCAA. But that is not where their heads reside. "You don't ever want to settle for, 'Win one game, win two games.' You want to be able to go out and have a chance at winning the tournament," explained forward Drew Crawford. "That's the way we feel every year. We're doing the same this year."
* But this year, unlike all recent years, they now reside firmly on the NCAA tourney bubble, which makes them the kid of the moment, an object of curiosity, a feel-good story that has drawn expansive attention. This was reflected in the scene before their Tuesday practice at Welsh-Ryan, where there was a veritable battery of cameras and microphones and notebooks eager to capture their every comment before they ventured off on what could be an historic journey. Yet this hype now surrounding the 'Cats only caused John Shurna to chuckle. "Obviously, this is exciting," he would then say when asked about it. "This is what you play for. You want to be playing your best basketball in March, you want to be playing well in March, and I think we've been playing well. But to be honest, we've been asked the tournament question since the start of the year. There's a little more attention now obviously, but we're all used to the question being brought up and maybe that's to our advantage."
* 'Cat coach Bill Carmody, when asked how often he talked to his team about the NCAA tourney, initially said, "I don't think I ever talked about it." But then he got a good laugh from the masses when he continued, "I think maybe six weeks ago, and this was maybe the only time all year, I said if we end up eight-and-ten (in conference play), and this was when we're two-and-six, I said if we're eight-and-ten and do something in the conference (tournament), we'll be in the discussion. That's where we are. But I wish I'd said ten-and-eight. They listen well."
* No 'Cat denied hearing the chatter, no 'Cat feigned ignorance when it came to the momentousness of the occasion. But when asked about facing yet-one-more must-game in Minnesota on Thursday, they did fall back on an old chestnut to explain their mindset. "We're just taking it one game at a time and one step at a time," was how guard Alex Marcotullio put it. "The big picture is always there. Our ultimate goal's always been to get to the NCAA Tournament. But we knew we couldn't look ahead of anybody and that every game is do-or-die. Even though it might not be, for us it really was."
"I wouldn't even call all these games (they've played since the start of February) must-win. We don't have that mindset going into games," said Crawford. "We take each game like any other. They're all extremely important because, at the end of the day, they all count on your record, they all count on your conference record, they all count when it comes to the tournament. So we try to prepare for everyone the same. There is a lot of hype around the game, but that comes from outside sources. We try to treat the games the same within the team. That's not to say we're not extremely hungry and excited for the game. It's a huge one."
* Since the game is the thing, let's mute the chatter here and now go there. In Minneapolis on Jan. 22, the 'Cats missed their first 14 field goal attempts, fell into an 11-0 hole and lost to the Gophs by 23. But at Welsh-Ryan a month later, the 'Cats turned over the Gophs 21 times, broke open the affair late in the first half and cruised to an 11-point win. When asked what his team learned about the Gophs in that second meeting, Crawford said, "They played a little bit of zone in that game and so we have to be ready for that. Rebounding's always key against them, and then transition defense as well."
* In that second game, the Gophs had a 41-20 rebounding advantage over the 'Cats. In their first game, that advantage was 40-28. It is no wonder, then, that Carmody said, "With us, it's always rebounding (that's important)."
* So that is one thing to look for. Another is the Gophs' height, length and athleticism, which can make it tough to score inside. Then there is their overall defense, which is aggressively in an opponent's grill. But when asked if all that could make it tough for him to attack the basket, as he likes to do, Crawford said, "I wouldn't say too much. You still maintain your aggression and you're still able to do the things you do because our offense is so fluid and we're able to find a lot of opportunities."
* The wild card here is 'Cat guard JerShon Cobb, who sat out the loss in Minnesota with an injury and was just three games into his return when the teams played at Welsh-Ryan. That night, his first as a starter all season, he went 0-of-3 from the field, and he followed that up by going 1-8 against Michigan. "Who'd be play after Michigan? Ohio State (actually, Penn State)?" he would say on Tuesday. "I made a shot then. Then it was, 'OK. I can still play basketball."
And now? "I'm back," he declared. "I'm more comfortable on the floor."
* Cobb, said Carmody, is not all the way back. "He's got to come out of games sometimes when he's tired," he explained. But then he added, "He's also gotten a little more comfortable, he's feeling better, and he was certainly instrumental in our comeback the other night (at Iowa). He even hit some shots. So he's certainly given us another guy, a guy who can do some things off the bounce. That's one thing I think is real important for us."
* Cobb, who before his injuries was expected to be the third 'Cat scorer behind Shurna and Crawford, was most certainly instrumental last Saturday in Iowa City, where he went 6-of-11 while finishing with 13 points. "He's been great for us," Shurna would say of him. "He's improving each game, each practice, and that's huge for us, an extra body that's really capable of making plays. I probably just had a bad quote there saying an extra body. He's definitely much more than that. He's a tremendous player, and the healthier he gets, the more he plays, the better he is. He's in the gym all the time, so he's going to continue to get better, which is huge for us."
* And finally, Shurna, on the bubble and bracketology and all things related: "I won't lie and say I'm not watching other teams. But when it comes down to it, you have to really focus on Minnesota. You can't focus on other teams."