MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota's latest setback left only eight players in the rotation and one true guard in the starting lineup.
Al Nolen's absence didn't rattle the 16th-ranked Gophers, though, who used their big guys to muscle past Northwestern.
Blake Hoffarber scored 20 points while playing point guard in Nolen's place, Trevor Mbakwe rammed his way to 18 points and 14 rebounds, and Minnesota wore out the Wildcats 81-70 on Wednesday night.
"You've just got to look in the post, and someone's going to have a mismatch," said Hoffarber, who had four assists and went 8 for 8 from the free-throw line.
Mbakwe got his 12th double-double of the season while matching his career high in points and moving back into the starting lineup for the first time in four games following a disciplinary demotion. The Gophers (16-4, 5-3 Big Ten) won their fourth straight despite the loss of their steady leader Nolen, a senior who broke his right foot last weekend.
Colton Iverson added 15 points, Ralph Sampson III had 14 points and the Gophers started a parade to the free throw line for a season-high 46 attempts. They drew 32 fouls on the Wildcats (13-6, 3-6), the Mbakwe-Sampson-Iverson trio too much to handle with their hustle and passing touch complementing a clear size and strength advantage.
"It changed things completely, because one of us is going to have to have a small person on us and we can feed him all night," said the 6-foot-11 Sampson, who essentially played the small forward spot and went 8 for 9 from the foul line.
John Shurna had 16 points for Northwestern, his chin bandaged to cover six stitches after a bad cut forced him out for the end of the first half. He said he felt woozy afterward.
"We didn't get smacked like we did against Wisconsin, but a loss is a loss," Shurna said. "It's tough."
Michael Thompson led the Wildcats with 18 points and Drew Crawford had 15, all on 3-pointers, before fouling out. The Wildcats had been just as competitive as the Gophers, losing just one non-conference game and only to opponents in the top half of the Big Ten, until they wilted in a 32-point loss at home to Wisconsin last weekend.
Crawford went scoreless in that game, and coach Bill Carmody was critical of his team's overall ability to carry out the scouting report against the disciplined Badgers.
The Wildcats were on their way to being buried again, falling behind 29-16 near the 5½-minute mark of the first half after freshman Austin Hollins grabbed a rebound under the basket and flicked it as he fell out of bounds to Sampson for an easy layup.
Crawford found his stroke, though, and in a span of 135 seconds the Wildcats went on an 11-0 surge. The Gophers didn't make a jump shot until Hoffarber's pull-up from the top of the key with 65 seconds left in the half, and they had trouble maneuvering when the Wildcats used a backcourt trap to launch their 1-3-1 zone defense. Rodney Williams, who shifted to shooting guard, doesn't have the shot to consistently beat a zone and Hoffarber was too busy dribbling and distributing the ball to get open much.
Alex Marcotullio made 3-pointers on both sides of the halftime break, and the Gophers suddenly trailed 37-33. But Iverson gave Minnesota seven straight points and Shurna, the conference's fourth-leading scorer, lost his shot in the second half.
The Gophers, who used a 2-3 zone defense to compensate for the loss of Nolen on their vulnerable perimeter, used their effective high-low passing game over the top of the zone and their decided strength and size advantage inside to wear down the Wildcats.
On one highlight-reel sequence, the ball zipped between all three big men -- Iverson to Mbakwe with his back to the basket to Sampson as he dashed to the lane for a layup and a 52-44 lead.
"That starting lineup is probably one of the biggest and strongest in the country," said Shurna, who on one possession found himself posted up by Mbakwe in a mismatch that resulted in a rim-rattling dunk. "We were trying to prevent that high to low, but they had good ball movement and the next thing you know we had to foul a lot."
Mbakwe struggled again at the line for the Big Ten's worst free throw shooting team, going 4 for 10, but the Gophers didn't let up down the stretch and improved to 10-0 in Hoffarber's career when he scores 20 points or more.
Coach Tubby Smith praised their poise, toughness and perseverance and credited Iverson particularly for playing up to his 6-foot-10 frame by keeping the ball high and strong.
The Wildcats made 12 shots from 3-point range but attempted a staggering 39, a lot even for them.
"We didn't have the size and strength to compete with them," Carmody said, adding: "There was a lot of ring-around-the-rosey stuff. It's hard to win a game over 40 minutes that way."