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Davonte Fitzgerald healthy and ready to fill Gophers backup PF role

When the Gophers landed Davonte Fitzgerald as a transfer from Texas A&M two years ago, he was looked at as a potential starting forward with all-conference upside.

After recovering from a second major knee injury, Fitzgerald needed time just to get healthy let alone become an impact player. But Tuesday’s 13-point, eight-rebound performance in a 100-57 win against Alabama A&M was a glimpse at what he could bring off the bench this season. 

“I’m just taking every game, trying to get better,” Fitzgerald said. “It was a good game and a stepping stone. Just trying to use this game to propel forward, especially health-wise."

On one play in the second half, the 6-foot-8, 220-pound Georgia native pump faked a defender took a few dribbles under the basket, jumped 180 degrees and threw down an emphatic one-hand slam, his first official dunk in maroon and gold.

The spring in his legs are definitely back.

“The rehab was really good,” Fitzgerald said. “I haven’t been cautious at all. I feel really good out there. That’s a plus for me and a credit to the training staff and the doctors getting me ready.”

Through his first four games at Minnesota, Fitzgerald was averaging just 2.8 points and 2.0 rebounds in 10.8 minutes. It wasn’t the start he and the Gophers were expecting, but he just needed to get comfortable after sitting out two whole seasons. Before his Gophers debut earlier this month, he hadn’t played a regular season game since with the Aggies in 2014-15.

“It was a great game for him,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “Athletically, he had that dunk. I think he’s moving good. Physically he’s a 100 percent. Mentally, he’s just getting caught up with the flow of the game, because he didn’t play for two years. This was a good day to get that out of him and continue to play. So I like what I saw.”   

After losing sophomore Eric Curry for the season, Pitino said Fitzgerald needs to be able to help fill that backup power forward spot behind Jordan Murphy.

“Davonte’s grown a lot since he first came back,” Murphy said. “He’s in great shape right now. To his credit, he’s been in the gym extra and working on his shot and working on different post moves. He deserves this moment.”

Hot-shooting Harris

One of Pitino’s priorities in the 2017 recruiting class was to add an outside threat to poor three-point shooting Gophers team from a season ago.

That’s where Jamir Harris comes in. Harris, a 6-2 freshman guard from the Patrick School in New Jersey, led one of the nation’s top high school teams with his long range expertise last year. And his stroke has so far carried over to the next level.

Harris has become the Gophers’ best three-point shooter through five games. He’s averaging 5.8 points and shooting 53.8 percent from beyond the arc (7-for-13), which ranks sixth in the Big Ten.

“I like what he gave us tonight,” Pitino said. “He gets off the ground quick. He does a lot of really good things, and defensively he was good. He’s undersized but he laterally moves really, really well. Freshmen just have to figure out how not to screw up. When Jamir figures that out, I think he’s going to be a really good weapon for us.”

Pitino isn’t worried about fellow freshman Isaiah Washington struggling with his outside shooting. Washington is averaging 7.2 points, but he’s shooting just 11.8 percent from three (2-for-17).    

Gas gets a chance

Rarely-used senior big man Gaston Diedhiou saw his first extended playing time of the season Tuesday against Alabama A&M. The 6-10 Senegal native made the most of it with career-highs in points (six) and blocks (three) and a steal in eight minutes.

That was more productive than senior center Bakary Konate’s two points, two rebounds and a steal in 12 minutes Tuesday. Could we see Diedhiou playing more in the future? One game against arguably the worst team in college basketball is probably not enough to make that assumption yet.

Gophers might use a smaller lineup more often this season

ALABAMA A&M at GOPHERS

Three things to watch:

SMALLER LINEUP – At some point this season maybe sooner than later, Minnesota will rely on a smaller lineup to win. The starting five has pretty good size with 6-foot-5 Dupree McBrayer and 6-8 Coffey on the perimeter and 6-10, 260-pound Reggie Lynch at center. But Richard Pitino likes to go small to speed up the game when possible. That means playing senior Nate Mason and freshman Isaiah Washington in the backcourt together -- and not going with a traditional center when Lynch sits on the bench with foul trouble or to rest. Last season, the Gophers could play 6-9 Eric Curry at center, so they weren’t losing much in size off the bench. But with Curry out for the year, Pitino has played with 6-6, 250-pound Jordan Murphy at center and 6-7 Micheal Hurt or 6-8 Davonte Fitzgerald playing power forward. At 6-11, Bakary Konate would allow the Gophers to still play big in the middle. But the senior center still struggles with getting his hands on rebounds and passes in the post. Konate might set a record for over-the-back fouls this year if he isn't careful.     

REBOUNDING DEFENSE – There really isn’t much of an excuse as to why the Gophers allowed undersized opponents Niagara and Western Carolina to rebound at such a high rate the last two games. How close was the battle on the boards? Minnesota had only a 48-44 rebounding advantage against Niagara, while allowing 18 offensive rebounds. The Gophers only outrebounded Western Carolina 40-37 on Sunday, while allowing 13 offensive rebounds. Murphy leads the Big Ten with 12.8 rebounds per game, but even he can get better at boxing out on defense. Lynch averages 8.8 rebounds. But Minnesota’s third leading rebounder is the starting point guard Mason at 6.2 per game. McBrayer, Coffey, Fitzgerald, Hurt and Konate all stand between 6-5 and 6-11, but they average four rebounds or fewer. They all need to rebound more consistently, especially on the defensive end. Minnesota ranks 13th out of 14 Big Ten teams in rebounding defense (opponents average 36.8 rebounds per game).

THREE-POINT SHOOTING – The Gophers were stout at defending three-pointers and inconsistent shooting from long distance last season. But it’s been the complete opposite so far this year. The worst part of Minnesota’s defense is defending the arc, ranking 12th in the Big Ten and 333rd nationally in three-point percentage defense (opponents shoot 44.7). On the other side, Minnesota is actually shooting the three better than last season (34.3 to 37.2), which ranks fifth in the conference. Coffey’s made the biggest improvement from 33.7 to 47.1 percent in four games. Mason (36.0 to 40.5) and McBrayer (40.9 to 43.8) are also shooting at a career-high level from long distance in the early going this season. The addition of freshman Jamir Harris has added another threat from deep as well. Harris is tied for seventh in the Big Ten at 50 percent shooting on threes (4-for-8).

GAME INFO

Time: 7 p.m. CT, Tuesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota 38.5 points. Series: First meeting. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTN Plus Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA (4-0)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Nate Mason 6-2 Sr. 14.0

G-Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Jr. 11.0

G-Amir Coffey 6-8 So. 14.0

F-Jordan Murphy 6-6 Jr. 24.8

C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Sr. 12.8

Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, Fr., 7.5 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 2.8 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Sr., 1.3 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, So., 3.5 ppg; Jamir Harris, G, 6-1, Fr., 4.0 ppg

Coach: Richard Pitino 97-75 (6th season)  

Notable: The Gophers have lit up the scoreboard so far this year with 94.3 points per game, ranking second in the Big Ten behind only Purdue’s 102.0. This type of scoring probably will not continue against tougher competition in nonconference and the Big Ten. But can the Gophers break the record for scoring offense in a season set at 83.6 in 1964-65? Pitino’s teams in his previous four seasons averaged 71.4 in 2013-14, 68.0 in 2014-15 and 75.2 points last season. Minnesota hasn’t averaged 80-plus points in a season since 1989-90 (83.3). All five players average double figures in scoring. That hasn’t happened in a season for the U since 1965-66.

Alabama A&M (0-3)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG                                         

G- De’Ederick Petty 6-0 So. 13.0

G- Arthur Johnson 6-2 Jr. 14.7

F- Andre Kennedy 6-7 Jr. 8.0

F- Mohamed Sherif 6-9 Jr. 6.3

F- Evan Wiley 6-7 So. 6.7

Key reserves– Jalen Reeder, G, 6-5, Jr., 6.7 ppg; Amari Goulbourne, G, 5-11, Fr., 5.7 ppg; Ariston Johnson, G, 6-0, So., 0.0 ppg; Marcus Merriweather, G, 6-2, Sr., 1.7 ppg

Coach: Donnie Marsh 107-141 (10th season)  

Notable: The Bulldogs weren’t just one of the worst teams in Division I basketball on the court last season with a 2-27 record. They also struggled off the court as well being hit with a postseason ban for low Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores last season. Alabama A&M’s men's basketball team had an APR of 869 during a four-year period and 904 for the 2015-16 school year, which is below the required 930 score for postseason eligibility.

Fuller’s prediction (4-0 picks record)Gophers 101, Alabama A&M 68. The Gophers will reach the century mark in points for the second time this season, which included a 107-81 victory against Niagara on Nov. 15. Alabama A&M is ranked 350 out of 351 Division I teams by stats guru Ken Pomeroy for a reason. They have lost 30 of their last 32 games the last two seasons, including 104-67 at Alabama last Friday. The Crimson Tide face Minnesota in the Barclays Center Classic on Saturday in Brooklyn. So maybe Bulldogs coach Donnie Marsh can give Pitino some game video to prepare for the toughest matchup so far this season. This will be another opportunity for freshmen Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris to get extended minutes to learn from mistakes and build confidence. Davonte Fitzgerald could also use a breakout game to show he still has the ability to play like he did before last year’s knee injury.

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