GOPHERS at ARKANSAS
Three things to watch:
HANDLING HELL – You know the saying, if you play with fire, you get burned. The Gophers should take that to heart Saturday playing against Arkansas’ well-known 40 Minutes of Hell style that dates all the way back to the 1994 national championship Razorbacks team under former coach Nolan Richardson. Current Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, a former Richardson assistant, hopes to create havoc with his full court press and run Minnesota out of the building. How Gophers guards Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Amir Coffey and Isaiah Washington handle the pressure will likely determine the outcome. The Gophers rank third in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5) and average just 11.7 turnovers a game. Mason and McBrayer are fourth (3.7) and fifth (3.4) in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio, respectively. The Hogs rank fourth in the Southeastern Conference in turnovers forced per game (16.4). Minnesota and Arkansas both like to run, ranking 27th and 28th in the country in adjusted tempo, per advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy. But slowing down the Hogs is the way to beat them. North Carolina (87-68) and Houston (91-65) blew out Arkansas winning the rebounding battle and limiting the Hogs to 11 fastbreak points combined in two games.
THREE-POINT DEFENSE – How did Washington upset Kansas and Loyola-Chicago upset Florida this week? Both the Jayhawks and Gators were two of the top three-point shooting teams in the country. You could say they live and die by hitting shots from beyond the arc. Take that away and they’re vulnerable. The same goes for Arkansas, which shoots 39.9 percent from three-point range. In losses to North Carolina and Houston, the Razorbacks were held to 32.6 percent (15-for-46) from three. Arkansas’ leading scorer Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon are two of the top shooters in the SEC. They've hit a combined 36 threes at 46.2 percent and 43.9 percent from long distance, respectively. Defending threes has been a weakness for the Gophers this year, ranking 12th in the Big Ten allowing opponents to shoot 37.8 percent.
PASSING OUT OF POST – Nebraska and Rutgers were the first two opponents this season to figure out how to slow down All-American candidate Jordan Murphy, who is averaging 19.9 points and 12.9 rebounds this season. Murphy recorded his national-best 10th straight double-double in Tuesday’s 78-68 loss at Nebraska. But the Cornhuskers double teamed him and frontcourt mate Reggie Lynch forcing them to pass out of the post. That’s not their strong suit. Murphy and Lynch combined for eight turnovers. In the last two games, Murphy has seven turnovers and is shooting just 28 percent from the field (7-for-25). Arkansas has the size (nine players 6-foot-5 or taller) and athleticism to harass Murphy and Lynch into taking contested shots and throwing errant passes. They need to be strong with the ball and make sure their passes out of the post are on the money.
Time: 5:45 p.m. CT, Saturday. Where: Bud Walton Arena. Line: Arkansas by 3 points. Series: Minnesota leads 51-15. Minnesota won last meeting 88-73 at home on March 2, 2017. TV: SEC Network. Online/Live video: WatchESPN Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Nate Mason 6-2 Sr. 15.7
G – Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Jr. 8.8
G – Amir Coffey 6-8 So. 13.8
F – Jordan Murphy 6-7 Jr. 19.9
C – Reggie Lynch 6-10 Sr. 11.6
Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, Fr., 8.1 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 2.9 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Sr., 1.1 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, So., 2.4 ppg; Jamir Harris, G, 6-1, Fr., 3.6 ppg
Coach: Richard Pitino 101-77 (6th season)
Notable: The No. 14-ranked Gophers will play their first true road game against an SEC opponent since losing 77-55 at Georgia in 2001. They started a home-and-home series with Arkansas last season. Minnesota beat the Razorbacks by 14 at the Barn. Amir Coffey, then a freshman, led the Gophers with 19 points. Reggie Lynch had 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, but he was out for most of the second half with an ankle injury. Eric Curry replaced Lynch at center and scored 12 points off the bench. Curry, who played high school basketball in Little Rock, Ark., is out for the year with a knee injury.
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Anton Beard 6-0 Sr. 11.9
G – Jaylon Barford 6-3 Sr. 19.6
G – Daryl Macon 6-3 Sr. 14.6
F – Dustin Thomas 6-8 Sr. 5.8
C – Trey Thompson 6-8 Sr. 2.8
Key reserves– C.J. Jones, G, 6-5, So., 10.8 ppg; Adrio Bailey, F, 6-6, So., 6.5 ppg; Daniel Gafford, C, 6-11, Fr., 12.0 ppg; Darious Hall, F, 6-6, Fr., 3.5 ppg
Coach: Mike Anderson 334-174 (16th season)
Notable: The Razorbacks have a seven-game winning streak at Bud Walton Arena, including a 4-0 record this year. Their last home loss was 72-59 against Vanderbilt on Feb. 7. The Gophers beat that same Vanderbilt team last season in Sioux Falls, S.D. The last victory against a ranked opponent at home for Arkansas was against No. 5 Texas A&M 74-71 in the 2015-16 season.
Fuller’s prediction (8-2 picks record): Arkansas 85, Gophers 76. The Gophers handled their first road test of the season impressively with an 86-74 win at Providence. That environment wasn't nearly as loud as Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln on Tuesday night. Nebraska didn’t draw nearly as much as the announced sellout of 15,000-plus, but it still had 13,847 fans in attendance. The Razorbacks were closing in on a sellout (19,200 capacity) with fewer than 500 tickets remaining early Saturday afternoon for Bud Walton Arena. Can Minnesota’s starters handle this hostile atmosphere? They didn’t react so well against the Cornhuskers. So let's just say Murphy, Mason, Lynch, Coffey and McBrayer show just how talented they are Saturday at Arkansas. The Gophers' bench is the bigger question mark. In two losses this season, Minnesota’s reserves have scored a combined four points, including going scoreless against Miami (Fla.). Last season, Akeem Springs and Eric Curry had 23 of Minnesota's 30 points off the bench in the win against Arkansas at home. Springs graduated and is playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA G League team this season. Curry will be on the bench Saturday, but he's sidelined with a knee injury. Who will step up to replace those guys? A third loss in the last four games could take Minnesota out of the top 25 next week, but that might be a blessing in disguise. Maybe Pitino's team needs to be humbled again and realize how much it needs to improve to make a run at a Big Ten title starting in January. That's the ultimate goal.