The Gophers should get help in the frontcourt soon with Eric Curry expected to return next week, but they have a pretty good talent at center right now with Daniel Oturu.
The 6-foot-10 freshman was going to come off the bench to start his college basketball career until Curry had to miss the start of this season recovering from knee surgery.
The experience appears to have sped up Oturu’s growth, evident with his career-best 19 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in Saturday’s 72-56 victory over Arkansas State in front of an announced 10,257 at Williams Arena.
Oturu’s inside presence made up for a tough day offensively for All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy, who was held to nine points on 2-for-10 shooting.
“Daniel is a talented, talented freshman,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “He’s had this opportunity of games without Eric to play a lot of significant minutes vs. a lot of good teams.”
As well as Oturu played Saturday, the game didn’t end smoothly for him after he fell awkwardly going after a rebound. He limped off the court and couldn’t put much weight on his right ankle with his team ahead 66-54 with three minutes to go.
“They said a sprained ankle,” Pitino said. “We’ll have to reevaluate it tomorrow and see. He was hobbling a little bit.”
The Gophers (8-2) opened with a 21-2 lead. Arkansas State (3-6) tried to get back into the game, but Oturu had eight of Minnesota’s next 11 points. When he wasn’t scoring off offensive rebounds, Oturu got to the foul line consistently, going 8-for-10 on free throws in the first half, which ended with the Gophers ahead 41-24.
Curry, a freshman contributor on the Gophers’ 2017 NCAA tournament team, sat out last season after tearing ligaments and meniscus in his left knee. More swelling led to surgery in October when his timetable to return was four to six weeks. Oturu wasn’t cleared himself after shoulder surgery until early October, but he is averaging 9.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and a team-best 2.2 blocks through 10 games as the starting center.
Oturu was thrown into the fire against a tough schedule. After learning a hard lesson on how physical the Big Ten is in last Sunday’s 20-point loss at Ohio State, Oturu bounced back with 10 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in Wednesday’s 85-78 victory over Nebraska.
Saturday was the fourth consecutive game where Oturu recorded at least three blocks. The Cretin-Derham Hall product ranks second in the Big Ten in that category, which makes Murphy excited about what the Gophers frontcourt can be when Curry returns — possibly Tuesday vs. North Florida.
“I think we’ll have a really formidable frontcourt when Eric comes back,” Murphy said. “Once Jarvis [Omersa] and Daniel get the hang of things, I think we’ll be really good.”
In the second half, Arkansas State cut a 21-point deficit to 63-51 after two free throws from Ty Cockfield, who scored 20 points. Coming off his 32-point performance Wednesday, Amir Coffey answered with a three-pointer.
Coffey finished with 12 points and six assists. Dupree McBrayer, who lost his mother to cancer Monday, scored 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting. Pitino said the senior guard will miss Tuesday’s game for his mother’s wake in New York, but the team hopes to join him for her funeral Wednesday.
“We’re logistically trying to figure out how we can get there,” Pitino said. “But we’ll be out another starter [Tuesday]. We’ve got to be able to get better.”