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Team-oriented Gophers a Big 10 surprise

The players can't wear the thick rubber bands during games --
apparently such "jewelry" might lead to somebody losing an eye or
something. But if you look closely at Minnesota coach Dan Monson, you just
might see the maroon accessory sneak out from under the cuff of his
dress shirt.

The band -- one similar to the bright yellow Lance Armstrong LiveStrong ones -- features one simple word: Mindset.

This has nothing to do with curing cancer or believing that nothing is impossible. Instead, the seven letters that make up Monson's favorite word of this basketball season represent much of why a Gophers team projected to fight Penn State for last in the Big Ten enters Wednesday night's game against Purdue with a surprising 11-3 record.

M is for Minnesota; I for indivisible; N for not about me; D for discipline; S for serve the program; E for excellence and T for thankfulness.

When this season began, there was little reason for optimism at
Minnesota, especially after a 2004 season in which the Gophers went
12-18 overall, finished last in the Big Ten and had zero fun. This
season, the Gophers most experienced returning player -- point guard Adam
Boone -- was lost to injury before the season started. The other three
eligible seniors on the team were two former walk-ons and a 5-foot-9 guard.
There were 12 players on the roster that had never played a second at
Minnesota.

The question wasn't if this season would be another disaster,
but rather how nasty could this become? And could Monson, the same guy
who got things rolling at Gonzaga, survive?

While there have been several surprises in college basketball
this season, the play of the Gophers certainly belongs on any list. They
blew out Penn State in the Big Ten opener, leading by 29 points at one
point, and enter tonight's game against a struggling Purdue team
looking to extend their winning streak to 10 games and to start league
play 2-0. The last time Minnesota did either of those things was during
the 1997 Final Four season.

So how have the Gophers gone from a team expected to finish last
in the Big Ten to one that RPI czar Joe Lunardi considers one of the
last four teams out of the NCAA tournament in his latest Bracketology?

While there have been many factors, three of the biggest
include: Working hard, playing together and defending.

When this season began back in mid-October, many teams kicked
off the beginning of practice with some sort of Midnight Madness soiree.
There would be no dunk contest for the Gophers.

Instead, the team went to northern Minnesota for the weekend and practiced twice a day at a local junior college. There, Monson promised that he would have fun
coaching this team and the players promised they would give full effort.

So far, the experiment in team chemistry is working. After three
consecutive seasons in which the Gophers were a team with a star -- two
years with Rick Rickert and one with Kris Humphries -- this team lacks
any sort of ego. The Gophers dive on the floor, they share the
basketball and they do little things. Loyola Marymount coach Steve
Aggers called it addition by subtraction.

"This team has really bought into being the sum of its parts,"
Monson said.

It has shown on the court. While Vincent Grier (who started his
career at Charlotte before spending his sophomore season at Utah juco
power Dixie State) is clearly the Gophers' best player, the Minnesota
offense hasn't been just about him.

"I think they're very unselfish," Penn State coach Ed DeChellis
said. "The kid Grier is a very, very good player and he really never
forces stuff. I think he could score every time he touched it, but he
doesn't have that kind of mentality. He has the mentality that he's
going to get his teammates shots and make other guys around him
better."

So far this season, six of Minnesota's eight primary players
have scored at least 15 points in a game. Why? The Gophers players don't
seem to care who scores as long as somebody does. They've made the extra
pass and made good looks at the basket turn into great looks.

That selflessness is much of the reason why the Gophers are first in the Big Ten (and ninth nationally) in field goal percentage at 51.4 percent. Minnesota is also 14th in the nation in three-point field goal percentage at 42.0 percent.

On the other end of the floor, former Bradley coach Jim Molinari
has helped improve a defense that has been poor for most of Monson's
tenure. The Gophers still need to contest perimeter shots better, but they're applying more ball pressure than in the past. When Minnesota won at Nebraska last month, they did so by not allowing the Cornhuskers a field goal over the final 4:23. That simply didn't happen in the past.

The rest of this week should paint a better picture of where the
Gophers really are, as since early-season losses to Alabama and Oklahoma
in the Great Alaska Shootout and a bad loss to Florida State in the
ACC/Big Ten Challenge, they haven't truly been pushed.

Minnesota's played 10 of its last 11 games at home and most of those games should have been Ws. That comfort level will evaporate after the game against the Boilermakers, when the Gophers embark on a road swing to Iowa and Ohio State.

Monson enters this stretch without any illusions that his team
is ready to beat Illinois. It is, however, getting better.

"We feel good with what we're doing, but we're not satisfied,"
Monson said. "I think we're smart enough as a collective group that
we've got to continue to go in the direction we're going, continue to
get better. We're going to keep grinding and try to get where we want to
be.

"We're not duped into believing everything is fixed right now."

Still, there are signs to believe that the Gophers have a chance
to be competitive in the Big Ten and at least make an appearance in the
NIT. Because UNC Greensboro played the trio of the Gophers, Iowa and
Wisconsin, Spartans coach Fran McCaffery has as good of a grasp on the
league as any coach. While competitive scores aren't worth much, the
Gophers' 35-point margin over UNC Greensboro was larger than those
recorded by the Hawkeyes (25 points) or Badgers (30).

"I can't see that there's a dramatic difference between any of
them," McCaffery said. "When you get into conference play, this (Minnesota) team is
going to be very difficult to beat at home. The question for this team
is can it shoot the ball consistently enough to win on the road? They
did it against Nebraska, so maybe they can."

Monson certainly isn't taking any chances. Since classes at
Minnesota don't begin until next week, the Gophers have been practicing
twice a day. Monson isn't killing his guys, just trying to get them
better.

"We're not forgetting our mindset that we've got to outwork
people," Monson said. "We've got a lot to do and a lot to improve on."

Ah yes, there it is. Mindset. Monson's favorite word.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.