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Gophers big man Curry recovering well, still making an impact

Sunday’s loss at Rutgers was one of those games when Gophers basketball fans wish they had Eric Curry healthy to bolster the frontcourt.

Curry sat on the bench in New Jersey supporting his teammates and coaches over the weekend, but he’s still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in October. 

The 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior has had several injury setbacks since his freshman year. But Curry says he’s on track to return healthy next season – and remains optimistic about what the Gophers can accomplish without him this year.

In a Q&A with the Star Tribune recently, Curry talked about different topics from his recovery to losing weight, Daniel Oturu’s emergence and how he helps Richard Pitino and the coaching staff.

Q: How has your rehab process been since the knee surgery in the fall?
A: My rehab is doing fine. It’s been totally different than my other knee (left knee was previously hurt). I only tore my ACL in this one, so recovery is probably quicker and faster with this one (timetable for return is this summer). Swelling went down after like a week. I’m progressing really quick and really fast and it doesn’t bother me at all.

Q: How have you stayed so positive after having multiple injuries the last few years?

A: Every time I get hurt, my mom travels up here to take care of me for a week when I can’t move around as much. She’s always sent me motivational messages to keep my head on straight. Every morning. She still believes in me and that’s all that really matters. That’s great support. I love her for that.

Q: How do you hope to help the team when you come back next year?

A: Same thing I’ve been doing the last two years. Bring experience. Just being a leader and help get the team through adversity. We won’t have a lot of seniors next year, but all of us will try to contribute to make us even better. I always pride myself on being smart and intelligent, having a high basketball IQ. I think that’s improved a lot. I’ve seen it from both sides now. I’m always around [Coach Pitino] and talking basketball. We talk about what he can do to help the team. Just knowing from his perspective and what he wants helps.

Q: How do you help Pitino specifically?

A: He always comes to me and asks me how to get guys going when they’re struggling. I basically just talk to him about situations to help them flourish. Stuff like that.

Q: Were you worried about the frontcourt having enough depth with you gone and Jordan Murphy graduating?

A: One of my biggest [frustrations] is trying to bring my injury up as a downfall of the team. People didn’t understand that [Oturu] was a phenomenal player. Now you all see it, night in and night out. This team can win without anybody. The next man just steps up. Of course, I’m a big part of the team, but those guys can handle it all. They’re showing the country they can.

Q: Did you see Oturu having this type of breakout sophomore season?

A: I knew Daniel could be really, really good. If he just did the simple things. We tell him all of the time to shoot a hook, because he goes into a lot of opponent’s bodies. If he just simplified his game and played even harder than he is it will take his game to whole new level. That’s crazy, because he’s already doing phenomenal things now. There are a lot of good bigs in this league, but I think Daniel is the best one.

Q: When you got hurt again that put a lot of pressure on senior Alihan Demir. How do you think he’s handled it?

A: Well, Alihan we knew he would have a tough time a little bit at first playing high-major [basketball]. We weren’t on him too hard at the beginning of the season. We knew he would come around. We told him we know what he’s capable of and to just play basketball. I think he’s finally doing that. Everything is off his shoulders now.

Q: Your former Arkansas Wings AAU teammate and fellow Gopher Payton Willis was out with an ankle injury for a few games. How did you help him get back on the court?

A: That’s been my guy since we were younger. I know what he’s capable of, too. His ankle is still bothering him. Of course, he’s going to fight through it for the team. I tell him to keep his head on straight and don’t get too down on yourself. I played through it last year when my knee wasn’t 100 percent. You just have to do whatever you can for the team.

Q: Did you regret playing too soon last year after the previous knee injury?

A:  I don’t have any regrets. I did what I could. I wasn’t 100 percent, but I didn’t want to sit down. I could play. If I can play, I want to play.

Q: What have you been doing differently this time around to get healthy?

A: I got with a nutritionist a couple months ago after I could start moving and exercising again. I basically sat down, and we talked about maybe a reason why I’m going through all these ligament tears. I gained too much weight. So, it was about getting leaner and down to my freshman size. I want to keep my strength but cut down on my weight by eating the right things.

Q: How different is your diet now than before this latest injury?

A: The nutritionist said to stick to a routine. That’s the main thing. My biggest problem was late night snacks. I ate junk food. I really like Cheetos. I had to eat healthy snacks like smart popcorn, popcorn without butter and beef jerky. More protein gives me muscle mass. I have to cut down on carbs until I start running and playing basketball again.

Q: Do you have an ideal playing weight?

A: Right after surgery, I was probably 250. I want to cut it down to 235. After my freshman year summer, I gained a lot of weight, because they wanted me to [he laughs].  

Q: What are your individual expectations for next season?

A: My goal for next year is to come back even stronger. I know I can overcome this injury like I did all of the other ones. Just have a phenomenal year next year. I want to go out the right way.

  

Pregame: Oturu, Carr are really good. But who is Gophers' third option?

Gophers men’s hoops at Rutgers  

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Finding third option – Who has the Big Ten’s best center-point guard tandem? A good bet would be the Gophers with sophomores Daniel Oturu and Marcus Carr, the only teammates averaging at least 20 points in league play. Oturu is averaging 23.1 points (2nd in the Big Ten), 12.9 rebounds (1st) and 2.4 blocks (2nd). Carr averages 20 points (3rd) and 7.4 assists (3rd) in conference games. Their combined play has led Minnesota to four Big Ten wins at home. The Gophers are 0-5 in true road games, including 0-3 in the league. Even with Carr and Oturu combining for 56 points, they still fell in double overtime at Purdue. Richard Pitino is looking for a consistent third option. Pitino has only two players averaging double figures in Big Ten play, but senior Alihan Demir is close at 9.4 points per game, to go with 5.9 rebounds. Sophomore guard Gabe Kalscheur also seems due for a breakout game. He ranks third on the team in scoring but his numbers dropped significantly in Big Ten play from 15.4 to just 7.0 in points per game and 43.6 to an abysmal 16.3 percent three-point shooting in seven Big Ten games. But Kalscheur had 21 points on 6-for-6 shooting from three in a 68-64 loss at Rutgers last season.

Rebounds and free throws – The Gophers finally have their identity figured out. Better late than never. Similar to last season they try to dominate opponents on the boards and outshoot them from the free throw line. In Big Ten play, Pitino’s team ranks third (behind only Michigan State’s plus-9.3 and Indiana’s plus-8.1) with plus-5.3 rebounding margin through seven games. Jordan Murphy was the GOAT when it came to rebounding for the Gophers during his career (1,307 boards is 2nd in Big Ten history). But Oturu is picking up where he left off by leading the conference with 12.1 boards per game. The Gophers are tied for third in free throw percentage with Michigan State at 75.4 percent. They are getting nearly all of their free throws from two players, though. Carr and Oturu combined to shoot 19 for 25 from the foul line in Wednesday’s 75-69 win against Penn State (team shot 23 for 29). Pitino hopes that other starters get to the charity stripe as well, especially guards Kalscheur and Payton Willis (have not got to the foul line in four of the last five games). Rutgers is formidable on the glass with a plus-3.8 rebound margin to rank sixth in Big Ten games. But the Scarlet Knights really have struggled in free throw shooting this season, ranking last in the Big Ten and 328th out of 353 Division I teams at 63.9 percent (even worse in league play at 62.6).

Fatigue factor – The Gophers haven’t won a true road game this season, but they had a victory at Purdue slip from their grasp with a five-point lead in the last 3 ½ minutes. It was the only time this season and second time the last two seasons that they (27-2 record) lost after leading in the last five minutes. Was fatigue a factor? Possibly. Carr, who played 48 of 50 minutes in the double overtime loss in West Lafayette, averages 38.9 minutes in conference games to lead the Big Ten. Oturu is third in conference games at 37 minutes per game. He’s the only post player other than Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman (35.0) in the top 10. When it comes to finishing games strong the Gophers don’t have to look any further than the last time they played at Rutgers. They saw a nine-point second half lead evaporate in a 68-64 loss against the Scarlet Knights. Will Pitino use his bench a bit more to make sure Oturu and Carr have enough gas left in the tank in crunch time?

GAME INFO

Time: 12 p.m. CT, Sunday. Where: Rutgers Athletic Center. Line: Minnesota 4.5-point underdog. Series: Minnesota leads the official series 8-3, but Rutgers won 68-64 in the last meeting in Piscataway on Feb. 24, 2019. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTN2go. Radio: 100.3

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (10-7, 4-3)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 190 So. 16.5

G – Payton Willis 6-5 200 Jr. 9.4

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 So. 11.9

F – Alihan Demir 6-9 235 Sr. 8.2

C – Daniel Oturu 6-10 245 So. 20.3

Key reserves– Tre’ Williams, G, 6-5, Fr., 3.5 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, So., 2.5 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Sr., 1.8 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, Fr., 1.8 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 140-113 (8th season overall)  

Notable: Redshirt junior big man Eric Curry had successful surgery in the fall on a torn ACL in his right knee suffered during practice Oct. 7. The 6-9 redshirt junior hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year in 2016-17 after tearing ligaments in his left knee in 2017 and foot surgery last season. The last time Curry saw the court for the Gophers was with six points, four rebounds and two blocks in 13 minutes in a win at Northwestern on Feb. 28, 2019. Curry’s best performance last season was with 11 points and four rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench in a 65-64 victory against Penn State on Jan. 19 at the Barn.

RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS (13-4, 4-2)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Montez Mathis 6-4 So. 6.7

G – Ron Harper Jr. 6-6 So. 11.8

G – Caleb McConnell 6-7 So. 7.3

F – Akwasi Yeboah 6-6 Sr. 9.3

C – Myles Johnson 6-11 So. 9.3

Key reserves – Geo Baker, G, 6-4, Jr., 11.2 ppg; Paul Mulcahy, G, 6-6, Fr., 3.8 ppg; Shaq Carter, F, 6-9, Sr., 3.8 ppg; Jacob Young, G, 6-2, Jr., 8.8 ppg.

Coach: Steve Pikiell 249-214 (15th season) 

Notable: After finishing last in the Big Ten in four straight seasons, the Scarlet Knights had their best record since joining the Big Ten at 7-10 in 2018-19. Rutgers is undefeated (10-0) at the RAC this season, including victories against Wisconsin, Seton Hall and Penn State. Scarlet Knights junior guard Geo Baker returned from injury to have seven points, four assists and two steals in Wednesday’s 59-50 win against Indiana. Baker, who ranks second on the team in scoring (11.1) and first in both assists (4.0) and steals, missed three games with a broken thumb … Rutgers (No. 8 seed) and Minnesota (No. 12) were among 12 Big Ten teams included in ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi’s NCAA tournament projections Friday. The Scarlet Knights haven’t made the NCAA tourney since 1991.

Fuller’s prediction (11-6 with picks): Rutgers 70, Gophers 66.

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