GOPHERS vs. Alabama (watch game live here)
Three things to watch:
BACKCOURT BATTLE – Potential vs. experience. That’s the best way to describe Saturday’s backcourt battle between Minnesota’s Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey against Alabama’s Collin Sexton, John Petty and Dazon Ingram. The Gophers’ three-guard lineup consists of a senior, junior and sophomore, while the Tide have two freshmen and a sophomore. Will experience come out on top in Saturday’s Barclays Center Classic showdown? Mason’s scoring numbers are down from last season (15 to 12.7 points), but he’s still taking care of the ball (fifth in Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio) and rebounding at a high level (career-best 4.8). McBrayer’s scoring is slightly down as well from last season (11.1 to 9.7), but he’s shooting a career-best 45 percent from three and 82 percent from the foul line. Coffey’s scoring numbers are similar to last season (12.5 to 12.2), but he’s shooting much better from three-point range (33.7 to 47.6). Bama’s Sexton and Petty are the top scoring backcourt in the SEC combining to average 37 points per game. They haven’t been battle tested in conference play yet. Sexton had to sit out a game for rules violations, but he had 29 points in a 77-76 win over Texas Arlington. Petty had 30 points against Alabama A&M, but his most important performance was 16 points in Friday’s win against Brigham Young in Brooklyn. Sexton struggled for most of the game, but he’s still a projected top-10 pick by NBA draft sites. You never know when that potential will show up. The X-factor in this game could be the bench impact of Minnesota’s freshmen guard Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris, who will have friends and family in attendance being from New York and New Jersey.
THREE-POINT DEFENSE – For the first time this season, the Gophers held their opponent under 40 percent shooting from three-point range Friday. Massachusetts shot just 5-for-25 from beyond the arc (20 percent), including the starters going 1-for-12. Minutemen leading scorer Luwayne Pipkins entered the game averaging 21.3 points and shooting 48 percent from three, but he shot just 1-for-7 from deep Friday. Alabama ranks third in the Southeastern Conference in three-point shooting at 41.8 percent, led by Petty’s conference-leading 21 three-point field goals shooting it at 44.7 percent. The next two Alabama three-point leaders are Sexton and Avery Johnson Jr. who have made only a combined 13 three-pointers this season. So it seems if the Gophers can disrupt Petty they’ll have a shot at limiting the Tide from behind the arc. Easier said than done, though, Petty set a new school record with 10 three-pointers against Alabama A&M last week.
MURPHY’S OWN LAW– The Gophers haven’t seen much go wrong yet for Jordan Murphy, who is having a monster start this year with a Big Ten-leading 22.5 points and 12 rebounds per game. This would be the absolute worse time for him to struggle against Minnesota’s first ranked opponent this season. Murphy is usually his own worst enemy playing without energy at times in his first two seasons. But the junior forward is truly living up to his status as co-team captain so far this year. Murphy plays with intensity, toughness and aggressiveness whenever he’s on the floor. He hit his first three-pointer of the season Friday against UMass. But Murphy rarely settles for jumpers. He’ll dunk on opponents and take bigger post players off the dribble. Alabama doesn’t have a power forward who can match Murphy physically with his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame. BYU fell by double digits to Bama Friday, but Yoeli Childs dominated inside with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Time: 4 p.m. CT, Saturday. Where: Barclays Center. Line: Minnesota by 4 points. Series: Alabama leads 4-0. Last meeting Minnesota lost 78-72 in the second round Great Alaska Shootout in 2004. TV: None. Online/Live video: Facebook (Stadium Network) Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Nate Mason 6-2 Sr. 12.7
G-Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Jr. 9.7
G-Amir Coffey 6-8 So. 12.5
F-Jordan Murphy 6-6 Jr. 22.5
C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Sr. 11.8
Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, Fr., 7.2 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 4.5 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Sr., 1.2 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, So., 3.5 ppg; Jamir Harris, G, 6-1, Fr., 5.2 ppg
Coach: Richard Pitino 99-75 (6th season)
Notable: The Gophers are looking for their first win ever against Alabama after going 0-4 since their first meeting in 1973 when Hall of Fame baseball legend Dave Winfield and Ron Behagen were playing for 10th-ranked Minnesota playing in the NIT. Surprisingly, even Minnesota’s 1997 Final Four team couldn’t beat the Crimson Tide falling 70-67 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. in 1996. A year later, the Gophers had several players returning from the Big Ten title team, but they lost 64-63 against Bama at the Barn. The only NCAA tournament team under Dan Monson couldn’t get the program’s first win against the Tide in 2004. We’re not talking about facing Nick Saban’s perennial national champion in football. This is Bama basketball, which is far from a consistent SEC power. But this will the first time Minnesota plays against a ranked Alabama squad Saturday.
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G- Collin Sexton 6-3 Fr. 21.5
G- John Petty Jr. 6-5 Fr. 15.8
G- Dazon Ingram 6-5 So. 12.5
F- Donta Hall 6-9 Jr. 10.2
C- Daniel Giddens 6-11 So. 3.4
Key reserves– Alex Reese, F, 6-9, Fr., 4.2 ppg; Riley Norris, G/F, 6-7, Sr., 4.5 ppg; Avery Johnson Jr., G, 5-11, Jr., 6.6 ppg; Herbert Jones, G, 6-7, Fr., 7.0 ppg; Galin Smith, F, 6-9, Fr., 3.2 ppg
Coach: Avery Johnson 42-30 (3rd season)
Notable: The Crimson Tide will be one of the most long and athletic opponents Minnesota faces all season with 11 players 6-foot-5 or taller. Their backcourt is young but has size with 6-3 Sexton, 6-5 Petty and 6-5 Ingram. In the middle, the 6-11, 247-pound Giddens will battle Minnesota’s 6-10, 260-pound Reggie Lynch. Giddens will play Lynch for the first time, but he has experience against the Gophers. Before transferring to Bama, Giddens had nine points and four rebounds in 18 minutes for Ohio State in a 78-73 win against Minnesota in 2015-16.
Fuller’s prediction (6-0 picks record): Gophers 74, Alabama 70. The Gophers will arguably play their toughest two-game stretch this season with back-to-back ranked opponents in No. 25 Alabama on Saturday in Brooklyn and No. 11 Miami in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday at home. UMass coach Matt McCall called Minnesota a potential Final Four team. McCall’s not the first to make that projection, but he will be the last for some time if Pitino’s squad doesn’t rise to the challenge Saturday. Bama has a chance to contend in the SEC and be an NCAA tourney team. This would be the best win on the Gophers’ resume and give them momentum going into a tough game against the Hurricane. If Jordan Murphy has another double-double and Minnesota’s perimeter defense is as solid as Friday, then Pitino will get his first win against a ranked opponent in nonconference play in five years with the program.