Niagara at Gophers
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
BENCH SUPPORT – Isaiah Washington and Michael Hurt played key roles for Minnesota off the bench in Monday’s 86-74 win at Providence. The Gophers were trailing 51-46 just under 15 minutes left when Hurt entered the game. On his first offensive possession, Hurt received the ball at the top of the key and quickly swung it to Amir Coffey, who took his defender off the dribble to score a lefty layup off the glass. The next basket came on an assist from Hurt to a cutting Jordan Murphy for a dunk. A few minutes later, Washington steals the ball off an inbounds pass and hits Dupree McBrayer in stride for a layup and a three-point lead. The Friars responded, but Hurt scored on a reverse layup for a 63-58 advantage at 9:36. By the time Hurt went to the bench after 10 minutes, Minnesota outscored Providence 20-9. His final stats (two points, one rebound and one assist) don’t reveal how valuable Hurt was on both ends of the court. In the first half, Washington had all of his eight points, including three straight baskets to keep the Friars from making a run. The Gopher bench probably needs to contribute more than the 10 points it did Monday. Bakary Konate and Davonte Fitzgerald (four fouls each in just 13 combined minutes!) strugged to be a factor at all in the frontcourt. But Hurt and Washington proved in a hostile environment they can be counted on for support.
BALL MOVEMENT – Richard Pitino was mic’d up during a second-half timeout and it gave viewers an inside look at how he motivates his players in games. “When we play together we can beat anybody,” Pitino said after his team came from behind to take control. “Move the ball and you get open looks.” While defending the three-point line and not fouling are arguably the biggest keys on defense, ball movement and playing together are as critical to get Minnesota’s offense going. Once that happened in the second half, Pitino’s team buried threes, got easy layups and dunks – basically dominated a very good Providence team with a 30-13 run that sealed a huge road win. Nate Mason, McBrayer and Washington can get carried away sometimes forcing shots going 1-on-1. But they got the ball to Coffey and Murphy in the second half. The result were pretty good: Coffey had13 of his 15 points on 3-for-3 shooting from three-point range and Murphy had 17 of his 23 points on 8-for-10 shooting. Six assists and 12 turnovers Monday was NOT good overall. But five of those assists came in the second half during a rally. Pitino’s message was finally heard. Minnesota shot 62 percent in the second half, which allowed it to win with such a poor assist-to-turnover ratio. Last season, the Gophers were 0-4 when they committed double digit turnovers and were held under double figure assists. The losses were at Florida State (8 assists-17 turnovers), Michigan State (6-12), Penn State (8-20) and Wisconsin (7-12). The only win with fewer than 10 assists came at Maryland with eight, but Minnesota committed just six turnovers.
LYNCH AND MURPHY – Arguably the Big Ten’s top frontcourt tandem has opened some eyes across the country through two games this season, combining for 42.5 points, 22 rebounds and 5.5 blocks. WOW! Murphy’s obviously playing like not just a Big Ten but national player of the year candidate leading the conference with 29 points and 14.5 rebounds per game. WOW! His confidence is sky high right now after dominating Providence’s All-Big East preseason forward Rodney Bullock, who finished with just eight points on 3-for-8 shooting Monday. Murphy got off to a slow start with just six first-half points on 2-for-5 shooting. But Lynch picked up the slack early with eight of his 12 points in the first half, including six during a 12-0 run to open the game. Murphy rarely comes off the court, averaging 35 minutes in two games (tied for second in the Big Ten), which is crucial with the injury loss to his backup Eric Curry. Lynch had to sit for eight minutes in the second half after picking up three fouls right after halftime. Minnesota was fortunate to hang around until he returned to the game. Avoiding foul trouble is always something to watch from game-to-game with both players. Because when they are on the court together, the Gophers are very, very, very, very, very tough to defend in the paint.
Time: 7 p.m. CT, Wednesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota 20.5 points. Series: Minnesota is 1-1. Last meeting Gophers lost 79-65 at Niagara in 1973. TV: None. Online/Live video: BTN Plus Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Nate Mason 6-2 Sr. 14.0
G-Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Jr. 8.5
G-Amir Coffey 6-8 So. 11.5
F-Jordan Murphy 6-6 Jr. 29.0
C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Sr. 13.5
Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, Fr., 6.0 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 1.0 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Sr., 0.0 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, So., 2.5 ppg; Jamir Harris, G, 6-1, Fr., 6.0 ppg
Coach: Richard Pitino 95-75 (6th season)
Notable: The Gophers lost their last meeting with Niagara on road in New York in 1973. The Purple Eagles were then coached by Frank Layden, who would eventually coach the Utah Jazz. The 1973-74 Minnesota team’s freshman starting point guard was late Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. Bill Musselman was also in his third season as Gophers coach and finished 12-12. The following year, Musselman would bring in a fellow from the Bahamas you might know named Mychal Thompson, who would only finish as the U’s all-time scoring and rebounding leader.
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G- Kahlil Dukes 6-0 Sr. 23.0
G- Matt Scott 6-4 Sr. 18.0
G- Chris Barton 6-3 Jr. 9.0
F- Marvin Prochet 6-7 Jr. 10.0
F- Dominic Robb 6-8 Jr. 8.0
Key reserves– James Towns, G, 5-10, So., 9.0 ppg; Kaleaf Tate, G, 6-2, Fr., 0.0 ppg; Greg King, F, 6-7, Jr., 0.0 ppg; Greg Kuakumensah, F, 6-6, Fr., 0.0 ppg; Kierell Green, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.0 ppg.
Coach: Chris Casey 122-167 (11th season)
Notable: The Purple Eagles finished just 10-23 last season, including 6-14 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. But that was actually the first year winning double digit games in Casey’s four seasons. The turnaround likely needs to happen with this veteran team. Niagara returns all five starters, including All-MAAC guard Matt Scott and former USC transfer Kahlil Dukes. They combined to average 32.5 points per game last season.
Fuller’s prediction (2-0 picks record): Gophers 87, Niagara 72. The Gophers begin a three-game home stand Wednesday against Niagara, only a couple days removed from an impressive win on national television at Providence. This typically would be your trap-game scenario playing a losing no-name program from a small conference right after an emotional victory on the road. But Monday’s game was more an emotional roller coaster for Pitino than his players. He went back to his alma mater and the program where he was first part of a college coaching staff. His team passed its first test in a hostile environment. But I think that victory meant a lot more to Pitino than the team. So the Gophers shouldn’t feel like they’ve arrived yet after just one nice win away from home. Captains Mason and Murphy will have Minnesota ready to play. The bench should get extended minutes in the second half after the margin gets to 20-plus points. Surprise, surprise Murphy leads the way again with a 20-point double-double. Gopher fans will see Mr. Jelly Fam play well against a team from his home state New York.