MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -When Lawrence Westbrook learned this summer his Minnesota team would travel to his home state for a holiday-season game against a nationally lauded opponent, he could barely believe it.
For Westbrook, the Gophers' junior guard and scoring leader, the special weekend has arrived.
``That's the biggest game that I've played so far in college,'' he said, ``and I think everybody would say the same thing.''
Minnesota takes a perfect record to University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona for a Saturday afternoon game against ninth-ranked Louisville. No. 20 Arizona State plays Brigham Young in the second half of the doubleheader, dubbed the Stadium Shootout, held in the same building as last season's Super Bowl.
e a big boost toward an NCAA tournament berth, given their otherwise-unimposing nonconference schedule.
``We've got a lot of games to play, but yeah it would help if we could win this game,'' coach Tubby Smith said Thursday before the team departed for the desert. ``It's not how you start. It's how you finish. We have a lot to play for. That would be an important thing, to go out and play well.''
Minnesota hasn't won this many games in a row to start a season since going 11-0 in 1976-77, a team that finished 24-3 before the NCAA declared all those victories forfeits due to the use of an ineligible player. Entering Thursday's games, the Gophers were one of 13 remaining unbeaten teams among the 341 schools playing Division I men's basketball.
But they'll have to pick up a couple of wins against higher-quality competition to get in the tournament in March. Their 20-13 mark wasn't enough for the selection committee last time, and Minnesota has only been invited to once in the past eight years.
These nine victories, against Division II Concordia-St. Paul, Bowling Green, Georgia State, Colorado State, Eastern Washington, North Dakota State, Virginia, Cornell and South Dakota State, have given the Gophers an RPI ranking of 128 in the latest list posted on the NCAA's Web site.
) in the ACC. That's why playing Louisville is so important.
``I'm really excited. They're a good team. We all know that. We just want to test ourselves and see how we are right now and just get better,'' guard Blake Hoffarber said, adding: ``There's always room for improvement. We have a long ways to go, but I think we're going in the right direction.''
Three of their next five games could be against ranked opponents, actually, with Michigan State and Ohio State due at Williams Arena on Dec. 31 and Jan. 3.
Hoffarber, who missed the last game because of a sprained ankle, is good to go for Saturday along with forward Paul Carter. He sat out of the previous four games due to a more severe form of the same injury.
Balance is one of Minnesota's best attributes, with freshmen centers Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III among 11 players with 11 minutes per game or more. Hoffarber's 3-point shooting (he's 17-for-41, for 41.5 percent) will be tested against the Cardinals and their tough perimeter defense.
``I think we're a good team regardless of whether we win or lose,'' Westbrook said. ``I have confidence in this team. I know what we can do. There's going to be a winner and a loser, but I think for everybody else we have a chance to prove how good we are.''
where Smith also served as an assistant to Pitino with the Wildcats from 1989-91.
``We have a lot of things in common. Obviously in the business, Rick is an outstanding coach, but he's a good person,'' Smith said. ``He's one of the most caring and giving individuals I've ever been around. I really appreciate that.''

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