Maryland vs. Gophers men’s basketball

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Aggressive Amir – Gophers coach Richard Pitino motivated his leading scorer Amir Coffey in the last Big Ten home game by asking him why nobody was talking about Coffey when it comes to top NBA prospects in the Big Ten. Coffey eventually got himself into takeover mode and sizzled with a career-best 32 points in an 85-78 win against then-No. 24 Nebraska on Dec. 5. That has boosted the 6-foot-8 junior guard's scoring average to a Big Ten-leading 24 points per game through three contests. 

After a hip pointer injury held him back to end nonconference games, Coffey was healthy and aggressive again last Thursday with 15 straight first-half points in a 21-point performance in the upset at then-No. 22 Wisconsin. The last two Big Ten games showed how much potential Coffey has as a big-time scorer, but it also continued a trend with how long it takes Coffey to impact the game scoring the ball. He didn’t have his first field goal against Nebraska until 8:41 left in the first half. Minnesota already trailed by as much as nine points at home, but Coffey scored 11 straight points to get his team back into the game.

He also had 18 points in the second half when the Huskers were up 13. On Thursday night in Madison, Coffey was scoreless until 7:03 left in the first half. Suddenly, a fire lit under the former Hopkins star with 15 straight points to give the Gophers a 29-14 halftime advantage. Taking over during stretches is something Coffey has done since before high school but his 30 points vs. St. John’s as a freshman was the first time in college.

His 17 points in the first half that game sparked Minnesota back from an early 22-9 deficit. Sometimes the Gophers fall into holes too deep to climb out of by the time Coffey tries to be the savior. In the 10-point loss at Boston College this season, Coffey had just two points on 1-for-2 shooting in the first half. When the Gophers fell at Ohio State by 20 points to open early Big Ten play, Coffey didn’t score his first field goal until 9:03 in the first half after his team was getting thrashed 26-7. Coffey’s father and former Gopher and NBA player, Richard, said it’s in his son’s nature is to be patient and start off games getting others involved first. But Coffey's father and Pitino have been in his ear about being more aggressive from the outset, because he has the ability to be a go-to guy and the Gophers are so much better when he’s leading the charge.       

Who has the best frontcourt? – Minnesota and Maryland have two of the best frontcourts in the Big Ten. Jordan Murphy (league-high 3.7) and Daniel Oturu (3.3) are two of the top three offensive rebounders in the conference. Murphy leads the league overall in rebounding at 12.5, while Oturu is third in blocked shots at 1.9 per game.

The Gophers’ inside tandem is combining for 25.2 points, 20.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game this season. The Terrapins duo of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith are just as productive with a combined 26.9 points, 17 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. Fernando, a 6-10, 245-pound sophomore, has been even more dominant on the boards in conference play with a league-best 13.0 rebounds a game.

Smith and Fernando have next-level size, athleticism and length, so not surprisingly they are two of the top NBA draft prospects in the entire Big Ten. Smith, a 6-10 freshman and former McDonald’s All-American, is a projected top-10 pick in 2020. Fernando (7-4.25 wingspan) is even a higher-rated prospect by some draft experts than Indiana freshman sensation Romeo Langford. NBADraft.net had the Angola native as the projected No. 4 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The Gophers might need help inside off the bench Tuesday from Eric Curry or Matz Stockman, who both have experience against other talented Power Five big men this season.

Defensive turnaround – The Gophers have been a completely different team defensively during their six-game winning streak. Wisconsin entered Thursday’s game against their border rivals shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range (2nd in the Big Ten), but they were held to 5-for-22 (22.7 percent). Minnesota’s length in the backcourt with 6-8 Coffey, 6-5 Dupree McBrayer and 6-4 Gabe Kalscheur made it tougher on Wisconsin’s shooters.

Oturu and Murphy also got out of the paint to contest jumpers. D’Mitrik Trice was the Big Ten leader at 50.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc, but he was 2-for-7 from long distance Thursday. The Gophers have held opponents to 33.1 percent shooting from three (41-for-124) combined during their last six games. As impressive as the effort defending the perimeter, Minnesota held Wisconsin to just two offensive rebounds in the game.

Controlling the glass will go a long way to a victory Tuesday since the Terrapins are second in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (plus-11.2). Only Michigan State is better on the boards (plus-11.9). The Gophers are third at (plus-7.4). Not known for their thievery, the Gophers (tied for last in Big Ten with 5.2 steals a game) had seven steals against Wisconsin, including two critical takeaways turned layups by McBrayer down the stretch in the second half.

GAME INFO

Time: 6 p.m. CT, Tuesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers two-point favorite. Series: Maryland 7-2 series lead dating back to 1960, including last meeting 77-66 in College Park, Md. on Jan 19, 2018. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTNPlus. Radio: 100.3 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (12-2, 2-1 in Big Ten)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 15.5

G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 10.8

G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 9.9

F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 14.9

C- Daniel Oturu 6-10 Fr. 10.3

Key reserves– Eric Curry, F-C, So., 3.0 ppg; Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 2.5 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 2.4 ppg; Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 5.2 ppg; Matz Stockman, C, 7-0, Sr., 3.5 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, Fr., 1.4 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 120-94 (7th season overall)  

Notable: Redshirt sophomore forward/center Eric Curry, who missed last season with torn ligaments and meniscus in his left knee, was out for the first 12 games this season after knee surgery before the season. Curry made his season debut with four points and six rebounds in 17 minutes Dec. 30 against Mount St. Mary’s off the bench. He had two points and five rebounds in 22 minutes last week at Wisconsin. The 6-9 Memphis native averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game on the U’s NCAA tournament team in 2017. Curry started at center in the Oct. 20 scrimmage at Creighton, but he was sidelined again after an MRI revealed cartilage damage with his previously injured left knee swelling … Former Gophers and Maryland big man Ben Coleman, who also played several years in the NBA, died Sunday at the age of 57. Coleman, a Minneapolis North legend and uncle to ex-Gophers Dan and Joe, will be remembered with a moment of silence before Tuesday’s game against the Terrapins.

MARYLAND TERRAPINS (12-3, 3-1 in Big Ten) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Anthony Cowan 6-0 Jr. 16.5

G-Eric Ayala 6-5 Fr. 9.2

G-Darryl Morsell 6-5 So. 9.1

F-Jalen Smith 6-10 Fr. 12.4

F-Bruno Fernando 6-10 So. 14.5

Key reserves–Aaron Wiggins, G-F, 6-6, Fr., 9.3 ppg; Serrel Smith Jr., G, 6-4, Fr., 4.2 ppg; Ricky Lindo Jr., F, 6-8, Fr., 2.1 ppg; Ivan Bender, F, 6-9, Sr., 0.5 ppg.

Coach: Mark Turgeon 419-243 (21st season)  

Notable: Minnesota and Maryland both have two freshmen in the starting lineup, but the Terrapins rank 349th out of 351 Division I teams in experience, according to KenPom. Mark Turgeon starts two freshmen (Eric Ayala and Jalen Smith) and two sophomores (Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell). Freshmen Serrel Smith Jr., Aaron Wiggins and Ricky Lindo Jr. are also part of the Terps’ main rotation. Five Maryland freshmen average at least 10 minutes per game. Oturu and Kalscheur are the only Gopher freshmen playing double-digit minutes this season.

Fuller’s prediction (my record is 11-3 this season)Gophers 76, Maryland 74. The Gophers have six wins against major conference opponents this season, including ranked foes Nebraska and Wisconsin. That has put them in mock NCAA tournament brackets, but they weren’t able to get into the top 25 this week. Beating the Badgers on the road for the first time since 2009 was the biggest win so far, but Pitino’s team has to keep the momentum going Tuesday if it wants to impress other poll voters (I had Minnesota 24th in my AP ballot) enough to get ranked for the first time this season. KenPom has the Gophers winning the next four games to improve to 16-2 and 6-1 in the Big Ten, but this Maryland game is projected as the toughest matchup in that stretch (only 51 percent win probability).  

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