Penn State vs. Gophers men’s basketball

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

THREE-POINT D & REBOUNDING– In the six straight wins in December and early January, the Gophers were getting back to their defensive identity from the NCAA tourney team two seasons ago. They held opponents to 33.1 percent shooting from three (41-for-124). In Minnesota’s two losses in the last three games, Maryland and Illinois combined to shoot 53.8 percent from beyond the arc (14-for-26). Illinois was 8-for-16 in Wednesday’s 95-78 loss in Champaign. The Terrapins were 6-for-10 in the 82-67 loss Jan. 8, but 6-for-7 in the second half from long distance. Controlling the glass will also go a long way to a victory Saturday against Penn State. In the last three games, Minnesota has been outrebounded and is minus-7.8 in rebounding margin, which included 39-26 (12 offensive rebounds) in Wednesday’s loss at Illinois. The Nittany Lions might be winless in the Big Ten, but they’ve gotten close to pulling a game out by making threes and crashing the offensive boards. They hit 12 three-pointers in a 89-82 loss against Iowa, grabbed 21 offensive rebounds in a 70-64 loss at Nebraska and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds in a 64-62 loss against Indiana. Penn State also upset then-No. 13 Virginia Tech with 14 offensive rebounds and nine threes on Nov. 27.

HOT OR COLD COFFEY? – The Gophers don't want to have to rely on Amir Coffey to have 20-plus points every night to win games in the Big Ten. Coffey has taken his game to another level offensively this season, but he’s not Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ or Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. The 6-foot-8 junior is probably not going to be comfortable taking 15-20 shots every game. Why? Because he’s playing point guard and still has to worry about running the offense and getting teammates involved. It’s important for Coffey to score early in the game and get some rhythm going. Coffey, who was averaging a Big-Ten leading 23.4 points per game through five league games, was held to nine points on 2-for-13 shooting at Illinois. It was actually his first game scoring under double figures in Big Ten play since his freshman year in 2016-17 (missed 15 games as a sophomore with a shoulder injury). It was also only the second time in Coffey’s career he had fewer than 10 points and zero assists in a game. The last time that happened was his freshman year in a loss at Florida State. The former Hopkins star allowed no-calls by officials to get him rattled against Illinois. So if the game gets more physical again Saturday, Coffey has to not settle for jumpers and keep attacking the basket to eventually get fouled and go to the line. That’s one way to continue to score even if your shot isn’t falling.

FRONCOURT BATTLE – The Gophers were supposed to have a significant advantage in the frontcourt against Illinois. Jordan Murphy and Daniel Oturu entered the game combining to average more than 25 points and 19 rebounds. But Illini freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili was the most dominant force in the paint Wednesday with 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting and eight rebounds, including 13 points in the first half. That was as surprising as anything that happened to Minnesota in Champaign. Penn State’s frontcourt wouldn’t surprise anyone if it took over Saturday at the Barn. Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens have recorded double-doubles in the same game twice this season and three times in their career. Stevens has had eight 20-point games this season, including in a loss at Michigan State. Watkins is averaging 14.3 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in three career games against Minnesota, which included 20 points and 11 rebounds in a 95-84 overtime loss in State College last season. When will Murphy show he’s one of the elite players in the country again? The Gophers can’t wait too much longer and expect to remain above .500 in the conference. Murphy is averaging just 10.8 points on 39.6 percent shooting (19-for-48) and 8.8 rebounds in 28.8 minutes in Big Ten games (had 11 points and a season-low three rebounds vs. Illinois). Oturu’s presence was supposed to take pressure away from Murphy, but it hasn’t allowed him to make a jump from last year. Meanwhile, Oturu has been the Gophers’ most consistent frontcourt player recently with double figures in six of his last nine games. He’s averaging nearly 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks during that stretch, including a team-best 17 points and eight rebounds in just 19 minutes against Illinois.   

GAME INFO

Time: 7:30 p.m. CT, Saturday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers four-point favorite. Series: Minnesota leads 34-13, including the last meeting 95-84 in State College on Jan. 15, 2018. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTNPlus Radio: 100.3 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (13-4, 3-3 in Big Ten)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 15.9

G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 10.8

G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 9.9

F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 14.4

C- Daniel Oturu 6-10 Fr. 10.6

Key reserves– Eric Curry, F-C, 6-9, So., 3.8 ppg; Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 5.4 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., 2.9 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 103-82 (8th season)  

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. 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 made his season debut Dec. 30 against with six rebounds in 17 minutes in a win against Mount St. Mary’s. He had a season-high seven points in 17 minutes in Wednesday’s loss at Illinois with his mother, Audrea, in attendance for the first time since the NCAA tourney loss in 2017. Curry averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game in 2016-17 … Murphy’s three rebounds vs. Illinois on Wednesday were his fewest in a game since grabbing just one board in 26 minutes in a Jan. 21 loss against Wisconsin last season. Murphy, who needs four rebounds to tie former Ohio State star Herb Williams (1,111) for third on the Big Ten’s all-time rebounding list, has grabbed fewer than four rebounds in a game just four times in his career at Minnesota.

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (7-11, 0-7) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Jamari Wheeler 6-1 So. 2.9

G-Myles Dread 6-4 Fr. 8.8

F-Josh Reaves 6-5 Sr. 10.5

F-Lamar Stevens 6-8 Jr. 18.1

C-Mike Watkins 6-9 Jr. 8.4

Key reserves– Rasir Bolton, G, 6-2, Fr., 12.1 ppg; Myreon Jones, G, 6-3, Fr., 3.8 ppg; John Harrar, F, 6-9, So., 3.2 ppg; Trent Buttrick, F, 6-8, So., 2.5 ppg

Coach: Pat Chambers 162-160 (10th season)  

Notable: Stevens leads Penn State in scoring (18.1 ppg), but the 6-foot-8 junior was held to eight points on 4-for-18 shooting in Wednesday’s loss against Iowa … The Nittany Lions have an overall strength of schedule ranked second in the nation, by KenPom. Their five straight losses were at Nebraska and to four ranked teams in Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa.

Fuller’s predictionGophers 78, Penn State 74. The Gophers need to bounce back in a “big way” after arguably the worst loss of Pitino’s career by 27 points Wednesday at previously last-place Illinois. At one point, Minnesota trailed by 36 points in the second half. There really are no excuses anymore to explain getting blown out like that against a struggling team. In years past, Pitino blamed injuries and inexperience. Now he’s blaming himself for Minnesota not being competitive in losses at Boston College, at Ohio State and now at Illinois. The Gophers haven’t lost two games in a row yet this season (responded after the Maryland loss with an 18-point home win against Rutgers). The Gophers are 3-3 in the Big Ten. Doesn’t seem reason to panic yet. Remember that Indiana and Ohio State are both on four-game losing streaks right now after Saturday’s games. There’s an opportunity this weekend for Minnesota to right the ship and stay in NCAA tournament contention.

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