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Pregame: Seniors try to extend their career with NCAA tourney victory

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.

Pregame: A fast start could give the Gophers another chance to upset Purdue

Gophers men’s basketball vs. No. 13 Purdue

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Slow starts – Richard Pitino described his team’s slow start Thursday’s overtime win against Penn State as “zombie-like” when the Gophers trailed for the first 30-plus minutes of the game. Not that the Nittany Lions weren’t good enough to be in control, but Minnesota didn’t look very interested in playing hard, smart and together for long stretches. Senior captain Jordan Murphy asked his teammates why they were playing like they were down 20 points. They realized the deficit was clearly within reach and rallied to force the extra period and advance to Friday’s quarterfinals. Second-seeded Purdue isn’t an opponent you want to fall behind big early. In fact, the Gophers were able to pull off the 73-69 upset last week by setting the tone in the first half and leading at halftime vs. the Boilermakers. 

More than Coffey – The Gophers have putting so much of their offense on Amir Coffey’s shoulders that you expected things to fall apart when he eventually couldn’t carry the load. It did for most of the game Thursday, but Murphy and McBrayer took over go-to guy responsibilities in regulation vs. Penn State. Murphy, a three-time All-Big Ten forward, scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half. McBrayer had 15 of his 18 points in regulation, including some key baskets in the second half. Coffey eventually made his presence felt, so the combination of Minnesota’s Big Three was enough to pull off the comeback win in overtime. Coffey, McBrayer and Murphy combined for 55 points. In the last meeting with Purdue, the Gophers’ veteran trio also combined for 55 points, including a career-high tying 32 points from Coffey on 13-for-18 shooting from the foul line.

Foul shooting – Being one of the best teams in the country at getting to the foul line is only an advantage if you can make it count. The Gophers have 778 free throws attempted in 32 games this season, which is second in the Big Ten behind only Iowa’s 783. Minnesota’s 24.3 free throws attempted per game ranks 14th nationally. Lately, the Gophers have been capitalizing on that strength with 24-for-31 shooting in Thursday’s win against Penn State. Coffey was 10-for-11 from the charity stripe, which was the fourth time in his career he made double-digit free throws in a game (career-best was 14 vs. Nebraska at home this season). Murphy 7-for-8 from the line, which included 6-for-6 in the first half. McBrayer was also 4-for-6. The Gophers are 17-5 when shooting more free throws than their opponent this season.

GAME INFO

Time: 6 p.m. CT, Friday. Where: United Center. Line: Gophers 8.0-point underdog. Series: Purdue leads the series 95-79 (excluding vacated games), but Minnesota won last meeting 73-69 on March 5 in Minneapolis.TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTNPlus Radio: 100.3 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (20-12)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 16.2

G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 9.4

G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 9.9

F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 14.5

C- Daniel Oturu 6-10 Fr. 10.8

Reserves– Matz Stockman, C, 7-0, Sr., 3.0 ppg; Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 1.4 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.8 ppg. Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 4.3 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 1.8 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 128-104 (7th season)  

Notable: Redshirt sophomore big man Eric Curry had surgery Wednesday to repair ligament damage with his right foot. Curry, who averaged 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 18.7 minutes this year, was lost for the season after suffering the injury in practice last week … Senior center Matz Stockman replaced Curry in the rotation in the 73-69 win last week over No. 11 Purdue. The 7-foot Stockman had nine points, six rebounds and a career-high seven blocks … The Gophers are 2-1 against Purdue in the Big Ten tournament, including a 69-42 vs. No. 2 seeded Boilermakers in 2010. They reached their only Big Ten tournament championship that season falling to Ohio State.

NO. 13 PURDUE BOILERMAKERS (23-8) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Carsen Edwards 6-1 Jr. 23.4

G-Nojel Eastern 6-6 So. 7.6

G-Ryan Cline 6-6 Sr. 11.8

F-Grady Eifert 6-6 Sr. 5.7

C-Matt Haarms 7-3 So. 8.8

Key reserves–Aaron Wheeler, F, 6-9, Fr., 4.5 ppg; Eric Hunter, G, 6-3, Fr., 2.3 ppg; Evan Boudreaux, F, 6-8, Sr., 5.4 ppg; Trevion Williams, F, 6-8, Fr., 5.4 ppg; Sasha Stefanovic, G, 6-4, Fr., 2.7 ppg.

Coach: Matt Painter 318-162 (15th season)  

Notable: The Boilermakers won a share of the regular season Big Ten title finishing 16-4 in conference play, which included a 73-63 win Feb. 3 against Minnesota in West Lafayette, Ind. Painter is vying for his second Big Ten tournament title, also winning the championship in 2009 … Purdue guard Carsen Edwards was named All-Big Ten first team Monday after averaging a league-best 23.4 points per game. Edwards had 22 points in his last meeting with Minnesota, but shot just 7-for-31 from the floor, including 3-for-15 from three-point range.

Fuller’s predictionPurdue 78, Gophers 69. The Gophers have already punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament after Thursday’s win vs. Penn State, so the pressure is off to keep themselves on the right side of the bubble. Virginia Commonwealth lost in the Atlantic 10 conference quarterfinals to take away one more automatic bid. The Rams were predicted to be a No. 7 seed. Still, Minnesota shouldn’t fall lower than one of the higher 11th seeds even with other things shaking up the bubble in the next two days. 

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