Gophers men’s basketball vs. Louisville (NCAA tournament first round)

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Seniors last stand? – This could be the last college game for senior captains Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer. They've come such a long way since their freshmen year when the Gophers were an eight-win program. Murphy started his career as a reserve and became the school’s all-time leading rebounder and No. 2 in Big Ten history. The 6-foot-7 San Antonio native is also just 17 points away from surpassing Willie Burton (1,800 points) for second on the school's career scoring list behind Mychal Thompson. McBrayer overcame a suspension as a freshman to become a leader. He lost his mother to cancer earlier this season, but McBrayer continued to play for her with the support of his teammates. The Queens native has over 1,000 points and 300 assists in his career. Murphy was named to the Big Ten all-tournament team after his 27-point performance to lead the Gophers over Purdue. So you can bet he’ll give Louisville all it can handle in the paint in Thursday’s NCAA tournament first-round matchup. After he scored 18 points in the U’s Big Ten opening win vs. Penn State, McBrayer had just eight points combined on 2-for-12 shooting in the next two games. Still, the 6-5 southpaw found other ways to contribute with 11 assists and just one turnover combined. Senior guard Brock Stull fulfilled his dream by playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time. It was the reason he transferred from UW-Milwaukee this season, but can Stull now help his fellow seniors advance past the first round for the first time since 2013? 

Three-point defense – The Gophers won four of five games heading into the Big Ten tournament semifinals last week. Three-point defense was at the forefront of the late-season turnaround holding opponents to 32 percent shooting from beyond the arc during that stretch. The Wolverines put an end to Minnesota’s conference tournament run in part by shooting 10-for-26 from long distance. There are similarities between Louisville and Michigan. Both teams rely on long range shooting, but the Cardinals actually have a higher three-point rate (43.7 percent). Louisville has hit nine or more three-pointers 19 times in games this season, including twice with 13 threes.  

Frontcourt depth – Senior center Matz Stockman isn’t expected to play Thursday against his former team. Stockman spent three seasons at Louisville, including on three NCAA tournament teams. Now he will likely have to watch his Gophers teammates battle in the paint without him. Murphy and starting freshman center Daniel Oturu can’t afford to get in foul trouble Thursday, because there isn’t much size and experience behind them. Freshman Jarvis Omersa brings energy and athleticism off the bench, but he’s still figuring out how to impact the game defensively. Junior forward Michael Hurt was a member of the 2017 NCAA tournament team, but his role has been limited this season. Louisville has a set frontcourt rotation with Jordan Nwora, Malik Williams, Steven Enoch and V.J. King.

GAME INFO

Time: 11:15 a.m. CT, Thursday. Where: Wells Fargo Arena. Line: Gophers 5-point underdog. Series: Minnesota and Louisville tied 3-3, including the last meeting 81-68 on Nov. 14, 2014 in Puerto Rico.TV: CBS. Online/Live video: NCAA.com. Radio: 100.3 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (21-13)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 16.3

G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 9.1

G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 9.9

F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 14.8

C- Daniel Oturu 6-10 Fr. 10.8

Key reserves– Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 1.4 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.9 ppg; Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 4.1 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 1.7 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 129-105 (7th season)  

Notable: Senior center Matz Stockman is expected to miss his second straight game with a concussion suffered last week in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals vs. Purdue. Stockman, a Louisville transfer, became the Gophers’ most valuable bench player with nine points, six rebounds and a career-high seven blocks on Senior Night vs. Purdue … Redshirt sophomore Eric Curry had surgery recently to repair ligament damage with his right foot. Curry, who averaged 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 18.7 minutes in 15 games this year, was the top frontcourt player off the bench as a freshman on the 2017 NCAA tournament team.

LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (20-13) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Khwan Force 6-0 Sr. 3.2

G-Christen Cunningham 6-2 Sr. 9.8

F-Dwayne Sutton 6-5 Jr. 10.2

F-Jordan Nwora 6-7 So. 17.2

C/F-Malik Williams 6-11 So. 7.8

Reserves– Steven Enoch, C, 6-10 Jr., 9.3 ppg; Ryan McMahon, G, 6-0, Jr., 7.4 ppg; Darius Perry, G, 6-2, So., 5.4 ppg; V.J. King, F, 6-6, Jr., 4.1 ppg.

Coach: Chris Mack 235-110 (10th season)  

Notable: The Cardinals have the No. 3 schedule strength in the nation, according to the NCAA’s NET rankings. Their best wins this season were against Big Ten regular season and conference tournament champion Michigan State and North Carolina … Steven Enoch, V.J. King and Akoy Agau are the only players on the Louisville squad with NCAA tournament experience.

Fuller’s predictionLouisville 71, Gophers 66. The Gophers are again heading into an NCAA tournament game without being at full strength. They lost both Curry and Stockman to injuries in the last two weeks. Two years ago, Akeem Springs was out with an Achilles tendon tear and Nate Mason was limited with a hip injury before the Gophers fell 81-72 to Middle Tennessee in Milwaukee. Minnesota’s starters have been logging heavy minutes the entire postseason, so you can bet Pitino won’t take them off the floor Thursday unless he’s forced to with foul trouble.

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