Gophers men’s hoops at Butler

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Power forward production – It might sound like a broken record this year, but the Gophers really miss the consistent physical presence and rebounding prowess Jordan Murphy brought every night. There simply were not many players like the bruising 6-foot-7, 250-pound double-double king in the history of Gophers basketball. You don’t just replace Murphy with one player. That responsibility has been too much to ask for Drexel graduate transfer Alihan Demir, especially since he’s much more of a stretch power forward. And Demir also needs time to adjust to playing at the high-major level. They need to replace Murphy by committee. Demir and senior Michael Hurt have rotated at power forward in the first two games. There have been moments where they’ve made winning plays, but Demir and Hurt combined for just four points and four rebounds in the 71-62 loss Saturday against Oklahoma in Sioux Falls. Hurt actually was the only player to finish with a positive plus-minus [+2] in the game but in just 12 minutes. He was scrappy and held his own defensively against a much more athletic Sooners frontline. The Gophers might extend Hurt’s minutes Tuesday against Butler, but freshman forward Isaiah Ihnen making his debut could be a big help at this position. Ihnen, the Gophers’ top recruit in the 2019 class, is slender at 6-9, but he has a 7-4 wingspan. Ihnen missed the first two games with a wrist injury but is cleared to play Tuesday.

Getting to the line –The Gophers were outscored 17-4 at the foul line in Saturday’s loss against the Sooners. They didn’t just struggle making free throws (4-for-12 for the game), but they also stopped being aggressive and drawing fouls midway through the second half. Three starters combined to shoot just 1-for-1 from the line (Demir and Gabe Kalscheur didn’t attempt a free throw). Arguably the biggest strength of Richard Pitino’s team last season was getting fouled. They ranked 17th in the nation and No. 2 in the Big Ten with 23.6 free throws attempted per game. It didn’t matter that they only converted 68 percent from the line. They were making 16 free throws on average every night. How much have the Gophers relied on scoring at the foul line to win games under Pitino in recent years? Well, Minnesota lost for the eight straight time Saturday when not making at least 10 free throws in a game.  

Defensive identity – Pitino’s teams are at their best when they can lock down the opponent’s best player and make it tough to get easy baskets. As much as it looks good and seems fun when the Gophers are winning with a barrage of three-pointers, it just isn’t realistic for them to rely on that to beat quality opponents. They will struggle offensively and go on droughts at some point Tuesday night at Butler. What happens then? Oklahoma was held to just 25 percent shooting in the first half of Saturday’s game. The Gophers’ six-point halftime lead extended to eight early in the second half. But the Sooners pulled away with a 23-4 run shooting 61 percent in the second half. They were making shots from inside and out [6-for-8] threes. Kalscheur being in foul trouble hurt Minnesota’s perimeter defense. Sophomore center Daniel Oturu also needed some help protecting the basket and rebounding. How the Gophers establish a defensive identity could make or break their season, starting this week in back-to-back road games [also Friday at Utah].

GAME INFO

Time: 7:30 p.m. CT, Tuesday. Where: Hinkle Fieldhouse. Line: 8-point underdogs. Series: Minnesota owns 3-0 series lead against Butler, including 82-73 win in the last meeting in 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif. on Nov. 26, 2009. TV: FS1. Online/Live video: FoxSportsApp Radio: 103.5.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (1-1)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G - Marcus Carr 6-2 190 So.  17.0

G – Payton Willis 6-5 200 Jr. 16.0

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 So. 8.5

F - Alihan Demir 6-9 235 Sr. 7.0

C - Daniel Oturu 6-10 245 So. 15.5

Reserves–Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Sr., 2.0 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, So., 4.0 ppg; Bryan Greenlee, G, 6-0, Fr., 0.0 ppg; Tre’ Williams, G, 6-5, Fr., 3.5 ppg; Sam Freeman, C, 6-10, Fr.

Coach: Richard Pitino 131-107 (8th season overall)  

Notable: Redshirt junior big man Eric Curry had successful surgery last month on a torn ACL in his right knee suffered during practice Oct. 7. The 6-9 redshirt junior hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year in 2016-17 after tearing ligaments in his left knee in 2017 and foot surgery last season … Off the bench, freshmen Isaiah Ihnen was expected to help replace Curry’s minutes at power forward, but he missed the first two games … Former Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy played for the Gophers in their only previous game at Hinkle Fieldhouse in a 70-68 triple overtime win on Dec. 22, 1973 … Point guard Marcus Carr, a transfer from Pittsburgh, is off to a great start to his Gophers career. Carr leads the U in scoring [17.0], assists [7.0] and ranks second in rebounding [8.5).

BUTLER BULLDOGS (2-0) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Aaron Thompson 6-2 190 Jr. 10.0

G – Kamar Baldwin 6-1 195 Sr. 3.5

G – Sean McDermott 6-6 195 R-Sr. 19.5

F – Bryce Nze 6-7 235 R-Jr. 14.5

F – Bryce Golden 6-9 245 So. 11.0

Key reserves– Jordan Tucker, F, 6-7, Jr., 16.0 ppg; Khalif Battle, G, 6-5, Fr., 6.5 ppg; John-Michael Mulloy, F/C, 6-10, Fr., 3.0 ppg; Henry Baddley, F, 6-4, Sr., 7.0 ppg.

Coach: LaVall Jordan 50-55 (4th season)  

Notable: Butler has won 52 straight non-league games at Hinkle Fieldhouse, which only trails Duke for second best current streak in Division I men’s basketball. The Bulldogs are down to six healthy and eligible players. Among the players banged up is returning All-Big East guard Kamar Baldwin, who has seen his scoring average drop from 17.5 to 3.5 points per game this season. He’s only been limited to 19 combined minutes in two games. The undermanned Bulldogs have looked to senior guard Sean McDermott [26 points and six rebounds against IUPUI] and UW Milwaukee transfer Ben Eze [18 points and 11 rebounds vs. New Orleans] to lead them the last two games. 

Fuller’s predictionGophers 75, Butler 71

The Gophers are underdogs tonight for the second straight game, but they were on the verge of getting a quality neutral site win before going cold against Oklahoma. Figuring out how to sustain their offensive execution by getting the ball to Oturu and attacking the basket could help pick up their first road win this season Tuesday.

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