Northwestern at GOPHERS
Three things to watch:
BATTLE OF TOP PGs – The end of 2017 could’ve been a lot different for two of the top point guards in the Big Ten. In separate games two days apart, Nate Mason and Bryant McIntosh suffered injuries that at the time seemed possibly season-ending in wins against Florida Atlantic and Brown, respectively. Mason’s ankle and McIntosh’s knee were both not as seriously injured as it looked after MRI tests. They both sidelined only one game and returned without missing much of a beat. Mason came back to lead the Gophers with 17 points, six assists and three steals in a win against Illinois on Jan. 3. He followed that with 22 points and nine assists in a loss to Indiana last weekend. McIntosh couldn’t lead Northwestern to victory at Penn State, but he had 18 points and four assists in 34 minutes in the loss. McIntosh talked about his respect for Mason: “I love watching him play. He’s a great change-of-pace guy. He uses ball screens really well. I’d like to say that’s kind of something I do, too. He’s a really skilled guy who can really shoot it. We’ve had some great battles. It’s been a lot of fun going against a great competitor. We’re both really skilled, understand how to play and create space to get off our shots. We’re really good at reading the game.”
HIGH-SCORING MURPH – Does “High-Motor Murph” have a high-scoring game in him in Big Ten play? The Gophers are going to need that from him without the inside presence of suspended center Reggie Lynch’s double-digit scoring likely for the rest of the season. Murphy had a career-high 35 points and 15 rebounds in the season opener against USC Upstate. His next biggest game was 24 points and 18 rebounds against Drake on Dec. 11. But in four Big Ten games, the 6-foot-7 junior forward’s average dropped from 19.9 points on 59 percent shooting in nonconference to 15.8 points on 34.6 percent shooting. That’s a big drop off in efficiency. But Murphy can make a statement that he’s still one of the conference’s top scorers Wednesday at Northwestern. Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop overtook Murphy as the Big Ten’s leading scorer overall (20.0 to 18.9). That was after Bates-Diop had games of 27 and 32 points recently, including the latter in an upset win over No. 1 Michigan State to win Big Ten and national player of the week honors. Penn State forward Lamar Stevens had 30 points on 14-for-19 shooting in a win against Northwestern last Friday. The last 30-point performance in Big Ten play by a Gophers post player was by Kris Humphries with 36 at Indiana in 2004. Can Murphy come close to that Wednesday night for Minnesota, while also surpassing Tim Duncan’s record for consecutive double-doubles to start a season of 17 back in 1997?
NEW STARTERS? – The Gophers used their fifth different starting lineup last Saturday in a 75-71 loss against Indiana at home. Senior center Bakary Konate started his first game since the 2015-16 season on Saturday, replacing Lynch. Konate had a season-high three blocks, but he scored just two points and grabbed four rebounds in 27 minutes. Pitino talked about possibly starting Murphy at center instead in a smaller lineup, which he used the last game with junior Davonte Fitzgerald at power forward. Sophomore forward Michael Hurt replaced injured wing Amir Coffey (right shoulder) for his third career start Saturday. Hurt grabbed four rebounds and dished two assists, but he went scoreless on 0-for-1 shooting in 31 minutes. The Gophers could sacrifice size for more scoring. Pitino mentioned trying freshman Isaiah Washington at shooting guard, joining Mason and junior Dupree McBrayer in a three-guard lineup. That could be a starting lineup we see Wednesday or if not in the near future.
Time: 8 p.m. CT, Wednesday. Where: Allstate Arena. Line: Northwestern by 4 points. Series: Minnesota leads 95-66. Last meeting 70-66 Minnesota won at Northwestern in Evanston on Jan. 5, 2017. TV: BTN Online/Live video: BTNPlus Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM
MINNESOTA (13-4, 2-2)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Nate Mason 6-2 Sr. 16.0
G – Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Jr. 9.6
F – Michael Hurt 6-7 So. 2.9
F – Jordan Murphy 6-7 Jr. 18.9
C – Bakary Konate 6-11 Sr. 1.3
Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, Fr., 7.4 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 3.0 ppg; Jamir Harris, G, 6-1, Fr., 3.2 ppg; Gaston Diedhiou, F/C, 6-10, Sr., 3.0 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 106-79 (6th season)
Notable: The Gophers have lost five of the last seven meetings with Northwestern, which included three in a row before last year’s 70-66 win in Evanston. In 2016, the Wildcats embarrassed the Gophers with a 77-52 win at Minnesota and an 82-58 win at Northwestern. The Gophers haven’t won back-to-back games in the series since victories in 2011-12 and 2012-13 … Minnesota hasn’t played at Allstate Arena (Northwestern’s temporary home this year) since losing 76-63 to DePaul in the 1983 NIT. The building was called the Rosemont Horizon back then.
NORTHWESTERN (10-7, 1-3)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Bryant McIntosh 6-3 Sr. 13.6
G – Scottie Lindsay 6-5 Sr. 14.2
G – Vic Law 6-7 Jr. 12.7
F – Gavin Skelly 6-8 Sr. 6.8
C – Dererk Pardon 6-8 Jr. 12.0
Key reserves– Aaron Falzon, F, 6-8, So., 6.4 ppg; Isiah Brown, G, 6-2, So., 3.9 ppg; Anthony Gaines, G, 6-4, Fr., 3.7 ppg; Jordan Ash, G, 6-3, Jr., 2.3 ppg; Barrett Benson, C, 6-10, So., 2.1 ppg.
Coach: Chris Collins 83-67 (5th season)
Notable: Northwestern announced last year it would play all of its home games in 2017-18 at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. while Welsh-Ryan Arena undergoes $110 million renovations. Allstate Arena, about 40 minutes from Evanston, used to be the home for DePaul basketball for 37 seasons from 1980 until 2017. The Blue Demons now play at Wintrust Arena on the McCormick Place campus in downtown Chicago. Allstate Arena holds a capacity crowd of 17,500 for basketball. The Wildcats’ largest announced home crowd there this season was 10,017 fans for the Dec. 1 Big Ten-opening overtime win against Illinois. Northwestern’s home attendance this season is second lowest in the Big Ten at a 5,360 average (Rutgers’ 4,374).
Fuller’s prediction (14-3 picks record): Northwestern 74, Gophers 70. When it comes to Gophers basketball, the story is clearly not about what’s happening on the court right now. I totally get that. If you want to follow the Reggie Lynch suspension and alleged sexual assault cases, Star Tribune news reporters Rochelle Olson and Brandon Stahl were at Lynch’s attorney’s press conference Wednesday. They have the latest at this link here. Otherwise, there’s a Big Ten game being played Wednesday night involving the Gophers as well. To say this is a game with NCAA tournament implications would be accurate for one side at least. Northwestern is not even close with seven losses and no quality wins (0-5 vs. RPI top 100). But Minnesota (2-4 vs. RPI top 100) is currently a bubble team based on March Madness projections for 2018. In the latest bracket from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the Gophers are one of his first four teams out of the field and sitting at No. 72 overall in a 68-team field. CBSSports’ Jerry Palm has Minnesota as a No. 8 seed, but that was a day before the Indiana loss last Saturday. It’s likely that a second straight loss Wednesday night by the Gophers could leave them completely off most credible NCAA tourney mock brackets and bubbles – and that’s not even considering the fact that all their wins so far were with Coffey and Lynch when those two starters might not be back at all. Northwestern is not playing for as much as Minnesota is Wednesday. But both teams have postseason aspirations and similar problems with their resumes. Minnesota’s RPI is No. 74, while Northwestern’s is No. 98. Not good at all for both. The Gophers’ SOS (strength of schedule) is 140, while Northwestern’s is No. 62. Both not good. But Minnesota’s is atrocious. One team is a bit more battled tested than the other. One team is more at full strength than the other. One team is not facing a major off-court distraction. Advantage Northwestern.