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McBrayer accepts new role coming off the Gophers bench

The conversation only lasted five minutes when Gophers coach Richard Pitino spoke to Dupree McBrayer about a new role coming off the bench.

McBrayer could have showed frustration over losing his starting job to senior Akeem Springs. But the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard accepted his coach's decision and was ready to move on.

"I always thought about doing it, but I didn’t want to mess with it when we were winning,” Pitino said of the switch. “It provides a little bit more versatility and depth coming off the bench. Dupree doesn’t care. I had a (quick) conversation about it. He said, ‘Don’t worry about me, I just want to win.’”

Pitino made it clear McBrayer going to the bench after starting the first 19 games was no demotion. He’s been playing as consistently as any guard on the team, averaging 11.8 points this season.

McBrayer thrived off the bench with 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting in Saturday’s 78-76 overtime loss to Wisconsin. He also had four assists and one turnover in 21 minutes as a backup for Nate Mason at point guard and Amir Coffey at shooting guard.

“I kind of like it, honestly, a spark off the bench,” McBrayer said. “Akeem is one of the leaders of the team. He’s a vet. He deserved it. He worked for it. Nothing’s wrong with that role.”

On Saturday, McBrayer watched the start of the Wisconsin game and saw areas where his team needed help.

“When I came in the game I just tried to do some of those little things to help out,” he said.

McBrayer knows what it's like to struggle shooting the ball. He shot 25.3 percent from three-point range his freshman season. But the New York native is the team's most improved player this season, shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc. 

His former starting backcourt mate Nate Mason has been suffering through a shooting slump in the Big Ten (16-for-52 shooting in the last five games), but McBrayer's not worried about Mason’s confidence.

“He’s a tough kid,” McBrayer said. “He’s going to get it. He’s in the gym working all the time. I’m with him. Akeem’s with him. (Ahmad Gilbert) is with him. So he’s going to get out of that slump. He’s going to have a breakout game soon. Then he’ll be back on track after that.”

SPRINGS' SHOT: Springs isn't a stranger to a starting role. 

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound graduate transfer started 54 of 60 games he played in two seasons with Milwaukee-Wisconsin from 2014-16. He averaged 13.2 points and 5.3 rebounds as a junior, starting all 32 games for the Panthers last season.

Springs brought experience to the starting lineup, but he's also shooting 39 percent from three-point range. He scored 16 points against Wisconsin on Saturday, including the game-tying three-pointer to send it into overtime. 

"I've always been confident in my shot," Springs said. "I work hard on it. I want be able to have confidence and make shots if coach calls on me."

Springs has a light load with grad school courses, so he tries to work on his jump shot several times a week in the morning and after practice. 

Gophers' Pitino wants Lynch to get ball more often

Gophers coach Richard Pitino doesn’t think he could’ve done much differently Saturday against Ethan Happ, who had 28 points in Wisconsin's 78-76 overtime win at the Barn.

But looking at how the Badgers played through their center makes Pitino want to get the ball more to Reggie Lynch, the Gophers' top inside scoring threat.

The 6-foot-10 junior is the team’s sixth leading scorer, though, with 8.1 points per game on 52.2 percent shooting (24-for-46) in Big Ten play this season.

“That’s definitely what we need to do something more of,” Pitino said Sunday on WCCO-AM radio. “We do need to continue to go to him because he’s a very efficient scorer. He just has to find a way not to get in foul trouble.”

Lynch, an Edina native, finished with eight points, seven rebounds and five blocks in 20 minutes before fouling out Saturday against Wisconsin. It was the fifth time he fouled out in seven Big Ten games.

Pitino said Lynch has to be stronger with the ball, but staying off the bench will help him get more opportunities moving forward. He averages 15.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and 5.9 blocks, per 40 minutes. But Lynch plays 21 minutes per game this year.

“We’ll get him the ball if he’s on the court,” Pitino said. “Our offensive flow when he was out of the game just totally went away.”

Cretin-Derham Hall junior big man Daniel Oturu, who committed to the Gophers on Thursday, was in attendance for the Wisconsin game. Oturu has been following Lynch's play this season.

COFFEY TIME: If the Gophers (15-5, 3-4) are going to snap a three-game losing streak Wednesday at Ohio State, Pitino also needs freshman guard Amir Coffey to continue being aggressive looking for his shot.

Coffey led the team with 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting Saturday, including 3-for-4 from three-point range against Wisconsin.

“He’s got the ultimate green light with me,” Pitino said. “Because he’s been such a good passer for such a long time his scoring has been underrated. In order for us to win, we need him to attack the basket. We need him to score. We don’t need him to score 30, but we need 12, 13, 14 points per game from him.”

The former Hopkins star has been Minnesota’s most efficient scorer in Big Ten play. Coffey’s averaging 12.9 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and a team-best 43.5 percent shooting from three-point range.

 “He’s got to get out on the break,” Pitino said. “He’s got to get in ball screens that we put him in and go make some plays. He did that (Saturday). When he’s hitting threes he showed you how he can be pretty special.”

UNSUNG FRESHMAN: Another freshman who continues to grab Pitino’s attention is Eric Curry.

The 6-foot-9 Memphis native replaced starting power forward Jordan Murphy for most of the second half and the entire overtime Saturday against Wisconsin. Curry finished with just five points and five rebounds in 19 minutes, but he held his own defensively against Nigel Hayes.

Curry also hit a baseline jumper in overtime that gave the Gophers a 76-74 lead with 59 seconds left.

“He’s been playing pretty well,” Pitino said. “I liked his length on Nigel Hayes. He’s really talented. Amir gets a lot of the accolades, which he should. But in Eric we always thought we got a diamond in the rough. Sky is the limit with him. He’s skilled. He can shoot the ball. He’s got great length. He plays hard. He’s a great kid. When he’s playing like he did (Saturday), he’s going to force me to play him more.”

TOURNAMENT UPDATE: The Gophers were a No. 8 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest ESPN NCAA tournament projections. They were one of eight Big Ten teams in Lunardi's current bracket, including Wisconsin, Maryland, Purdue, Michigan State, Indiana and Northwestern and Michigan.

Minnesota's RPI was No. 17 and strength of schedule was No. 6 as of Monday afternoon. 

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