Nebraska vs. Gophers men’s basketball
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
HONORING TAYRA – The Gophers will wear patches and pins with initials and have a moment of silence before Wednesday’s game to honor the memory of senior guard Dupree McBrayer’s mother, Tayra McFarlane, who lost a battle with cancer Monday. Nebraska coach Tim Miles also had his players wear "RIP Tayra" warmup shirts to honor McBrayer's mom as well Wednesday. McFarlane was a big supporter of the team and retired from her job as a prison warden in New York to attend more of her son’s games this season. She had a stroke in October and was diagnosed with cancer. McBrayer played the last few weeks knowing she was in poor health, but he still managed to average 10 points in 29 minutes this season, which included 13 points in Sunday’s loss at Ohio State. The Queens native and co-captain tweeted Monday that he hoped to make her proud. McBrayer is expected to play against Nebraska.
MURPHY’S FOUL TROUBLE – It’s not hard to figure out the No. 1 game plan for every Gopher opponent: go after Jordan Murphy and get him into foul trouble. The Cornhuskers will attack Murphy when he’s on defense and try to draw charges on him when he has the ball from the opening possessions Wednesday night. How will Richard Pitino react when Murphy picks up his first or second fouls early in the game? Well, if Sunday’s 79-59 loss at Ohio State is any indication the response will be to sit Murphy immediately, especially after foul No. 2. There seems to be a different philosophy on that for every coach. Pitino errs on the side of caution. The game completely changes when Murphy heads to the bench. He had just three points on 1-for-5 shooting playing just 12 minutes in the first half against the Buckeyes. That eventually led to Murphy’s worst game so far this season with only seven points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes. As gifted athletically as freshman Jarvis Omersa is he’s not producing much so far (1.9 ppg and 1.4 rpg) for the Gophers as the backup power forward. So there’s a huge drop off from Murphy’s team-best 14.6 ppg and Big Ten-leading 12.0 rpg when Pitino needs to substitute. When Eric Curry is fully cleared and returns to the lineup later this month, the Gophers could either try Curry or freshman Daniel Oturu at forward off the bench. Murphy said Tuesday he just has to play smarter and not pick up careless fouls to make matters worse.
DEFENSIVE IDENTITY – The Gophers ranked 13th in three-point defensive percentage (35.3), 13th in field goal percentage defense (44.3) and 12th among Big Ten teams in scoring defense (70.5) through eight games. Those numbers are eerily similar to last season when Minnesota finished 15-17 playing shorthanded with injuries and a suspension to shot blocker Reggie Lynch, who won Big Ten defensive player of the year in 2017. So what’s the reason for the poor defensive play this year? Well, the absence of Curry is part of the problem. He is Minnesota’s best post defender and can stick with guards off ball screens. An even bigger issue, though, is the lack of deflections, especially steals. The Gophers rank 333rd out of 351 Division I teams in steal percentage (5.8), according to KenPom. The only major conference team rated worst as of Monday was Utah (4.9), which the U beat the last time it played at the Barn on Nov. 12. Steals per game are down from 5.6 last season to 4.1 this year, which if the season ended today would be the fewest steals per game in program history.
Time: 8 p.m. CT, Wednesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: 3.5-point underdog. Series: Minnesota leads the all-time series 54-21, but Nebraska has won six of the last eight meetings, including 78-68 in Lincoln on Dec. 5, 2017 and 91-85 in Minneapolis on Feb. 6, 2018. TV: BTN. Online/Live video: BTNPlus Radio: 100.3 FM.
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (6-2)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 14.3
G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 10.0
G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 11.9
F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 14.6
C- Daniel Oturu 6-10 Fr. 8.3
Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 5.3 ppg; Matz Stockman, C, 7-0, Sr., 4.4 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, Fr., 1.9 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 2.4 ppg; Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 2.3 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 96-80 (6th season)
Notable: Redshirt sophomore forward/center Eric Curry, who missed last season with torn ligaments and meniscus in his left knee, will miss his ninth straight game after knee surgery before the season. Curry averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game on the U’s NCAA tournament team 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. Curry is expected to make his season debut in the next couple weeks.
NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS (7-1)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Glynn Watson 6-0 Sr. 14.6
G-James Palmer Jr. 6-6 Sr. 18.3
G-Thomas Allen 6-1 So. 6.8
F-Isaac Copeland 6-9 Sr. 15.1
F-Isaiah Roby 6-8 Jr. 8.3
Key reserves– Nana Akenten, G, 6-6, So., 7.1 ppg; Tanner Borchardt, F, 6-8, Sr., 1.8 ppg; Amir Harris, G, 6-6, Fr., 1.6 ppg; Brady Heiman, F, 6-11, Fr., 3.4 ppg.
Coach: Tim Miles 387-318 (24th season)
Notable: Nebraska swept the Gophers last season, including in a 91-85 win in Minneapolis on Feb. 6 behind Isaiah Roby and James Palmer Jr. combining for 38 points. Palmer, who is averaging 18.3 points, scored 23 points in Nebraska’s Big Ten-opening 75-60 victory Sunday against Illinois. Nebraska senior guard Glynn Watson torched the Gophers for a season-high 29 points last year in a win in Lincoln. Watson is averaging 14.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists this season … The Cornhuskers are looking for their second straight win against the Gophers in Minneapolis, which hasn’t happened since they won on consecutive days in 1914. The Barn opened in 1928.
Fuller’s prediction: Gophers 77, Nebraska 74. The Gophers will be playing with a lot of emotion Wednesday night against Nebraska with McBrayer’s late mother on their mind. That can probably sustain them with enough energy to get off to a strong start, but it won’t last the entire game. Murphy being on the floor and dominating the paint, and Amir Coffey, McBrayer and Gabe Kalscheur making plays from the perimeter could keep it close until the game is decided in the final minutes. One thing Pitino’s team has done well with this season is win close games (4-0 with games decided by single digits). All of those wins were against high-major opponents. It also should be a lift down the stretch to have the home crowd cheering, playing at the Barn for the first time in six games.