Gophers men’s hoops vs. Clemson in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Finishing strong – Trying to run away in games against opponents from the Big 12, Big East and Pac-12 wasn’t easy for the Gophers so far this year. Each game was close. Each game resulted in a loss. Minnesota is 0-4 this season in games decided by single digits entering Monday’s matchup with Clemson. There are a number of reasons why Richard Pitino’s team has not won close games in the first month. In last Friday’s 73-68 loss against DePaul, it was poor free throw shooting (19 for 30), defensive rebounding lapses (12 offensive boards allowed in second half) and a scoring drought (no field goal in last 6:34). It was something similar in losses to Oklahoma, Butler and Utah away from home. Collapsing both offensively and defensively led to the Sooners taking over with a 23-4 run in the second half of the 71-62 loss Nov. 9 in Sioux Falls, S.D. Another offensive drought plagued the Gophers against Butler, but it was Kamar Baldwin scoring 18 of his 27 points in the second half that led to a 64-56 loss at Hinkle Fieldhouse. After overcoming a rough start in Salt Lake City down 16-0, Minnesota couldn’t convert inside the arc (6 for 20 on two-point field goals) and got outshot 17-6 from the foul line in the second half in the 73-69 loss at Utah on Nov. 15. Clemson is 1-2 this season in games decided by single digits. The Tigers defeated Texas Christian 62-60 in overtime in the MFM Resorts Main Event last week in Las Vegas.    

Willis’ health – Gophers starting guard Payton Willis was a game-time decision for Monday’s game against Clemson, but he was cleared to play. Willis suffered a right ankle injury after landing awkwardly on an opponent’s foot in the second half of last week’s loss to DePaul. After limping off the court and heading to the locker room, Willis returned to finish with 16 points on 6-for-17 shooting in 36 minutes. The 6-foot-4 Vanderbilt transfer scored five points during a second-half rally that got the Gophers within 51-50. But Willis was hobbled a bit down the stretch missing a layup in the final minute with his team trailing by six points. Willis is a critical piece to the Gophers’ new backcourt with Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur. He leads the team in three-point shooting percentage (38.9) and is tied for the Big Ten lead with 21 three-pointers (3.0 per game). If Willis has a tough time playing extended minutes Monday, the Gophers will likely look to freshman Tre’ Williams to provide a lift off the bench. The 6-5 Williams is an athletic finisher and is shooting 36.8 percent from three (7 for 19) this year.

Board control – The Gophers were one of the top rebounding teams in the Big Ten last season, but things changed when they lost the school’s all-time rebounding leader Jordan Murphy to graduation. They rank 11th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (plus-3.9) this season. Sophomore center Daniel Oturu has picked up the slack with 11.9 rebounds per game this season (2nd in the Big Ten), but Murphy’s spot at power forward lacks anywhere near the same production on the boards. Senior Alihan Demir is showing more potential as a scoring threat lately (25 points combined in his last two games), but he’s averaging just 3.7 rebounds this season. The team’s second leading rebounder is point guard Marcus Carr with 5.9 rebounds per game. Rebounding was a factor late in the DePaul loss with the Gophers losing the battle of the boards 25-19 in the second half, which included giving up 12 offensive rebounds. Sophomore Jarvis Omersa had a career-high nine rebounds vs. North Dakota, but he had three rebounds before fouling out in 10 minutes vs. DePaul.

GAME INFO

Time: 8 p.m. CT, Monday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota 3-point favorite. Series: Minnesota leads the series 2-1, including winning last meeting 89-83 at home on Nov. 30, 2015. TV: ESPN2. Online/Live video: ESPN Watch app. Radio: 100.3.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (3-4)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 190 So. 13.0

G – Payton Willis 6-5 200 Jr. 12.9

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 So. 11.7

F – Alihan Demir 6-9 235 Sr. 7.7

C – Daniel Oturu 6-10 245 So. 17.0

Key reserves– Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, So., 3.6 ppg; Tre’ Williams, G, 6-5, Fr., 3.3 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, Fr., 2.0 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Sr., 1.6 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 133-110 (8th season overall)  

Notable: Redshirt junior big man Eric Curry had successful surgery last month on a torn ACL in his right knee suffered during practice Oct. 7. The 6-9 redshirt junior hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year in 2016-17 after tearing ligaments in his left knee in 2017 and foot surgery last season … Freshman forward Isaiah Ihnen scored three points in nine minutes during his season debut vs. Utah on Nov. 15. The 6-foot-9 Ihnen, a four-star recruit from Germany, missed the first three games with a right wrist injury.

CLEMSON TIGERS (7-0) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Al-Amir Dawes 6-2 160 Fr. 10.1

G – Currant Scott 6-4 205 Sr. 6.4

G – John Newman III 6-5 197 So. 11.6

F – Tevin Mack 6-6 227 Sr. 15.4

F – Aamir Simms 6-9 240 Jr. 11.9

Key reserves– Khavon Moore, F, 6-8, So., 2.4 ppg; Hunter Tyson, F, 6-8, So., 6.4 ppg; Parker Fox, G, 6-6, So., 1.0 ppg; Alex Hemenway, G, 6-3, Fr., 4.5 ppg; Paul Grinde, C, 6-10, Sr., 3.0 ppg; Trey Jemison, C, 7-0, So., 2.4 ppg.

Coach: Brad Brownwell 341-214 (18th season)  

Notable: The Tigers saw their five-game winning streak snapped last week in a 71-67 loss to nationally-ranked Colorado in the MGM Main Event in Las Vegas. They were heading for an upset before squandering a 12-point lead in the second half. Aamir Simms had a career-high 23 points and seven rebounds in the loss. Clemson finished runner-up in the event after defeating Texas Christian 62-60 in the previous game behind a season-high 22 points from Tevin Mack … Freshman guard Chase Hunter (7.0 ppg and 2.6 apg in 24.7 mpg) is not expected to play after missing the 71-67 loss to Colorado with a foot injury.

Fuller’s prediction (4-3 with picks): Gophers 74, Clemson 70. 

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Gophers starting guard Willis expected to play vs. Clemson