MILWAUKEE – Gophers reserves Michael Hurt, Stephon Sharp and Ahmad Gilbert averaged only a combined nine minutes a game in Big Ten play this season.
But with Akeem Springs out for the NCAA tournament with a right Achilles’ tendon injury, they all have been preparing to possibly give coach Richard Pitino more perimeter depth for Thursday’s first-round game against Middle Tennessee.
“The past few practices after the Big Ten tournament, we’ve kind of switched up the lineups, having new people play with each other,” said Hurt, a freshman from Rochester, Minn. “Me, [Gilbert] and Steph have all been getting a lot more reps with a lot of the starters like Nate [Mason]. Just to see how the chemistry works out. We don’t know how much we’ll be playing.”
Mason, Springs’ replacement in the starting lineup, Dupree McBrayer, and Amir Coffey played all but one minute in the Big Ten tournament semifinals against Michigan. Hurt was the only other perimeter player to see the court, but he played just one minute.
“I think I’ll be playing more than I usually have,” Hurt said. “I’m just kind of being prepared to step up and fill a role off the bench. Obviously in the Michigan game those guys played a long time. Hopefully, we can give them a break.”
Hurt has averaged 0.7 points and 5.9 minutes in 25 games this season. Gilbert, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, has averaged 1.7 points and 5.0 minutes in 15 games. Sharp, a sophomore walk-on, averaged just 1.8 minutes in eight games.
“I feel pretty prepared from a defensive end,” Sharp said. “A lot of the stuff of the past week has been catching up with the offense.”
Springs’ vocal leadership is missing on the court, and he led the team with 65 three-pointers during the regular season. Gilbert, who started six games last season, is 7-for-22 from three-point range this year.
“I’m ready to play if Coach calls my number,” Gilbert said. “It’s just the next man has to step up.”
Eric Curry and Tyrik Dixon remember watching the NCAA tournament this time last year as teammates at Southwest Christian Academy in Arkansas.
Curry, now a Minnesota forward, and Dixon, a Middle Tennessee guard, both thought they could be in the Big Dance as college freshmen. But they never imagined they would be playing against each other in the opening round.
“Both of us thought we were going to make the tournament,” Curry said. “We both had our mind-set on being here. We talked the day we found out we would be playing. He’s really not the trash talker. He just wants the game to play out.”
Dixon joked that Curry always had the “ugly hairstyle.” They’ve been friends since they started playing AAU basketball together in the eighth grade.
“It’s a great feeling,” Dixon said. “It’s my best friend. Playing with him was fun the whole time. We definitely talked about being in the NCAA tournament. But we didn’t expect to play each other our first time.”
Middle Tennessee (30-4) has lost only once in 2017, 57-54 at UTEP (the Blue Raiders avenged that defeat last week by beating the Miners by 26 points in the Conference USA tournament). Middle Tennessee beat a pair of NCAA tournament teams in UNC Wilmington and Vanderbilt.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.