Northwestern at GOPHERS
Three things to watch:
RUNNING OUT OF GAS – Nate Mason (35.4), Amir Coffey (35.2), Dupree McBrayer (31.6) and Jordan Murphy (30.3) are all playing more minutes as a group than any four starters in the Big Ten. And it could be taking a toll. Not only do they not have much energy left to finish games, but they’ve all been hurt this season. Coffey (shoulder) and McBrayer (lower leg) are even sitting out of practice to rest.
In the overtime win at Penn State last Monday, the Gophers led 41-37 at halftime and 59-46 with 11:25 left in the second half. But Minnesota’s players seemed to start running out of gas midway through the second half. The Nittany Lions outscored Minnesota 21-8 during an eight-minute stretch to tie the game 67-67 with a few minutes remaining in regulation. In particular, Mason went scoreless from the field in the final 12:48 in regulation and overtime. The Gophers probably don’t win that game if not for freshman Jamir Harris’ 10 points in overtime. Harris of course had fresh legs considering he hadn’t played much this season before his first career start against Penn State. In Thursday’s loss at Maryland, Minnesota took a six-point lead in the first half. Even after squandering that to fall behind by eight points, the Gophers cut it to a 29-28 halftime deficit and even led 32-29 at the beginning of the second half. Minnesota slowly started to wear down, though. Maryland went on a 24-4 run during a span of seven minutes that turned into an insurmountable 17-point deficit for Minnesota. In Saturday’s loss to Ohio State at Madison Square Garden, the Gophers led by 10 in the first half with the help of Coffey’s return from a shoulder injury. Ohio State showed why it was undefeated in the Big Ten by rallying to lead 38-31 at halftime. The Gophers were still within striking distance until a 9-1/2 minute stretch (11:34 to 2:06) without a field goal in the second half. Mason didn’t have a field goal in the last 11-plus minutes. Murphy didn’t score the last 13:36 (partly because he sat a few minutes after tweaking his ankle).
ZONE BUSTER – Northwestern saw how much success it had playing zone against the Gophers in a 23-point win on Jan. 10. Now the Wildcats have completely changed their defensive style by playing 1-3-1, 2-3 and even some 2-2-1 zone schemes throughout games. That completely flustered Minnesota coach Richard Pitino’s team previously, because he didn’t prepare his players to face it. Pitino likely didn’t make that same mistake before Tuesday. But the Gophers have never had much success against the zone even when they knew it was coming in years past. The Wildcats have won four of the last five meetings in the series, including their last three wins by 25, 24 and 23 points. Having Coffey back as a three-point shooting threat gives Northwestern’s defense a different look than it saw earlier this month. Freshman Jamir Harris shooting with confidence after scoring 26 points combined in two starts last week might also provide a boost. But it will be a long night if the Gophers can’t hit jump shots to soften the zone.
SMALL LINEUP – After the suspension of center Reggie Lynch, Pitino flirted with different rotations to make up for the loss of the 6-foot-10 senior and Big Ten’s leading shot blocker. Trying to replace Lynch with 6-11 senior Bakary Konate or 6-10 senior Gaston Diedhiou has failed miserably the last six games. The Gophers have tried go small at times (6-7 Murphy at center and 6-8 Davonte Fitzgerald at power forward), but not consistent enough to really know if it will work as the primary starting lineup. Rebounding has been a struggle without Lynch even going big, so why not go smaller? The biggest risk is having Murphy defend the opposing team’s biggest frontcourt player, which could put him in foul trouble. Murphy picked up two quick fouls in the last meeting with Northwestern and it completely changed the game in favor for the Wildcats. Fitzgerald will also need to be more of an inside threat scoring at the rim, rebounding and blocking shots. So far the former Texas A&M transfer prefers to play a finesse game relying on jump shots and shying away from physical play in the paint. Will Pitino give it a try Tuesday night?
Time: 8 p.m. CT, Tuesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota by 2. Series: Minnesota leads 95-67. Last meeting Northwestern won 83-60 at Allstate Arena in Rosemont on Jan. 10, 2018. TV: BTN Online/Live video: BTNPlus Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM
MINNESOTA (14-8, 3-6)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Nate Mason 6-2 Sr. 15.4
G – Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Jr. 10.3
G – Amir Coffey 6-8 So. 13.9
F – Jordan Murphy 6-7 Jr. 17.9
C – Bakary Konate 6-11 Sr. 1.6
Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, Fr., 6.7 ppg; Jamir Harris, G, 6-2, Fr., 4.1 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 3.1 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, So., 2.8 ppg; Gaston Diedhiou, F/C, 6-10, Sr., 2.1 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 107-83 (6th season)
Notable: After scoring a combined 49 points in an overtime win at Penn State, Mason and McBrayer have scored 44 points combined on just 15-for-50 from the field the last two games … Tuesday’s game against Northwestern is the only home game for the Gophers during a 23-day stretch, which includes five of six games away from Williams Arena.
NORTHWESTERN (12-9, 3-5)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Bryant McIntosh 6-3 Sr. 12.8
G – Scottie Lindsay 6-5 Sr. 13.9
F – Vic Law 6-7 Jr. 12.6
F – Gavin Skelly 6-8 Sr. 6.7
C – Dererk Pardon 6-8 Jr. 11.6
Key reserves– Aaron Falzon, F, 6-8, So., 6.6 ppg; Isiah Brown, G, 6-2, So., 4.2 ppg; Anthony Gaines, G, 6-4, Fr., 3.9 ppg; Jordan Ash, G, 6-3, Jr., 2.2 ppg; Barrett Benson, C, 6-10, So., 1.8 ppg.
Coach: Chris Collins 85-69 (6th season)
Notable: Wildcats senior point guard Bryant McIntosh set a school-record with 16 assists and zero turnovers against the Gophers two weeks ago … Northwestern lost two straight games after beating Minnesota 83-60 at Allstate Arena on Jan. 10, but the Wildcats ended the slide with 70-61 victory Saturday vs. Penn State.
Fuller’s prediction (17-5 picks record): Gophers 76, Northwestern 74. Going into the season, the Gophers’ strength was their backcourt. One preseason publication even called Mason, McBrayer, Coffey, Washington and Harris as a top-10 backcourt in the nation. Lynch and Curry are gone for the season, but Pitino still has his one of the deepest guard rotations in the Big Ten. The question is can Pitino get the most out of them in the second half of the Big Ten season to turn things around? It has to start tonight against Northwestern.