Arkansas State vs. Gophers men’s basketball
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
PLAYING FOR TAYRA – The Gophers won an emotional game Wednesday playing for senior guard Dupree McBrayer’s mother who lost a battle to cancer on Monday. A heavyhearted McBrayer leaned on the support of his teammates and had five points, four assists and two steals in 34 minutes in a 85-78 win against No. 24 Nebraska. Amir Coffey scored a career-high 32 points to lead a comeback down 13 points in the second half. McBrayer's three-pointer down the stretch helped the Gophers finish on a 25-9 run to seal their first Big Ten victory. The team will continue to wear uniform patches with the initials of McBrayer’s mother, Tayra McFarlane. On Saturday, the gofundme.com page to pay for McFarlane’s funeral surpassed its goal of raising $15,000, which included Minnesota coach Richard Pitino and his wife contributing $5,000. McBrayer will play Saturday against Arkansas State, but he will leave next week for funeral services back home in New York.
CENTER STAGE – The Gophers should get help in the frontcourt soon with the return of redshirt sophomore Eric Curry expected next week. Curry, who will miss his 10th game Saturday after recovering from knee surgery in the fall, was projected as the team’s starting center. In his absence, freshman Daniel Oturu was thrown into the fire against a tough nonconference schedule and two early Big Ten games. Oturu is tied with Jordan Murphy for the team lead with 10 dunks this year. He would be ahead of Murphy if he hadn’t struggled at times to finish at the rim. His biggest strength is as a shot blocker. The 6-foot-10 former four-star recruit leads the Gophers with 2.1 blocks per game, ranking second in the Big Ten. Oturu had his third straight game with three blocks Wednesday, to go along with 10 points and nine rebounds. It was his first double-figure scoring performance since opening the season with 27 points combined against Omaha and Utah. The area Oturu needs to improve the most is taking care of the ball in the post. He ranks third on the team in turnovers (17), which included a season-high four against the Cornhuskers. The experience Oturu and 7-foot senior Matz Stockman gained with Curry out should pay off when Big Ten play resumes in January.
CONTAIN COCKFIELD – Arkansas State senior guard Ty Cockfield is averaging 21.5 points on 46.5 percent shooting from three-point range this season, which includes a 30-point performance last week in a loss at Lehigh. Cockfield is barely 6-feet, but he can finish at the basket with a strong 185-pound frame. As a high school player in Georgia, he led the state in scoring as a senior with 28 points per game in 2015. After playing at Stetson and Georgia Highland Community College, Cockfield showed last season what was to come once he got experience in the Sun Belt. He averaged 23.5 points in his last four games, including a career-best 35-point effort vs. Coastal Carolina. That carried over to this season where Cockfield has scored 20 points or more in six of the first eight games.
Time: 3 p.m. CT, Saturday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers 20.5-point favorite. Series: Gophers lead series 3-0, including 82-75 win on Dec. 23, 2016. TV: None. Online/Live video: BTN Plus Radio: 100.3 FM.
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (7-2)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 16.2
G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 9.4
G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 11.9
F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 15.0
C- Daniel Oturu 6-10 Fr. 8.4
Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 5.1 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 2.1 ppg; Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 2.0 ppg; Matz Stockman, C, 7-0, Sr., 4.3 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, Fr., 1.7 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 92-78 (6th season)
Notable: Curry missed last season with torn ligaments and meniscus in his left knee. He averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game on the U’s NCAA tournament team as a freshman in 2017. The 6-foot-9 Memphis native started 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. The Gophers are hopeful Curry makes his season debut Tuesday against North Florida ... Senior Jordan Murphy set the school record for double-doubles with the 52nd of his career Wednesday against Nebraska. Murphy, who averages 15.0 ppg and a Big-Ten leading 12.1 rpg, is the 11th player in Big Ten history with at least 1,400 points and 1,000 rebounds.
ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (3-5)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Ty Cockfield 6-0 Sr. 21.5
G-Christian Willis 6-1 So. 3.8
F-Grantham Gillard 6-4 Sr. 9.1
F-Tristin Walley 6-7 Sr. 7.9
F-J.J. Matthews 6-9 So. 7.4
Key reserves– Canberk Kus, G, 6-6, Jr., 8.0 ppg; Marquis Eaton, G, 6-2, So., 9.4 ppg; Malik Brevard, F, 6-6, Jr., 7.9 ppg; Salif Boudie, F, 6-8, Jr., 5.0 ppg; Kobe Wilson, G, 6-1, Fr., 3.0 ppg.
Coach: Mike Balado 14-26 (2nd season)
Notable: Mike Balado, who was on Florida International’s staff under Richard Pitino in 2012-13 and Louisville’s staff under Rick Pitino from 2013-17. Balado’s assistant Casey Stanley was a Gophers video coordinator in Pitino’s first year. The Red Wolves are 0-3 on the road this season, but they defeated Evansville 87-77 at home Tuesday … Red Wolves senior guard Grantham Gillard, who is from Minneapolis, is averaging 9.1 points and 6.0 rebounds in eight starts this season.
Fuller’s prediction: Gophers 88, Arkansas State 69. The Gophers haven’t played a nonconference opponent lower than the high major level at Williams Arena since the Nov. 6 season-opening win against Omaha. That’s a highly unusual stretch considering most teams play the majority of their nonconference games at home against lower level opponents in November and December. That wasn’t the case this season with the Vancouver Showcase, U.S. Bank Stadium Classic, Big Ten/ACC Challenge and early Big Ten play giving the Gophers their biggest challenge in years to open the season. To finish 7-2 during that stretch reveals a lot about the potential of this team. Now that the Gophers are back playing a softer schedule they need to work on improving their chemistry, toughness and defense. That will help prepare them even further for the Big Ten grind in January and beyond.