Oral Roberts at GOPHERS

Three things to watch:

BETTER START FOR STARTERS – Gophers fans showed up to the last game against Drake hoping to see one of the Big Ten’s most talented starting lineups lead the way. But instead they ended up covering their eyes in disgust when watching any starter not named Jordan Murphy. The starting backcourt of Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey and center Reggie Lynch opened the game shooting a combined 0-for-13 from the field. Yes. That’s right. Seniors Lynch and Mason didn’t get their first field goals until the 3:40 and 2:40 marks in the first half, respectively. Minnesota was lucky to be trailing only eight points at that point. The halftime box score for the Gophers was almost too ugly to look at directly. Murphy had 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting, seven rebounds and two blocks. But Coffey and McBrayer were scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting combined. Lynch had just three points on 1-for-5 shooting (he wasn’t in foul trouble with zero fouls). Mason scored the team’s last seven points, but it didn’t help squash the crowd’s disappointment. There’s a reason why fans were booing at halftime with Drake leading 28-24. The starters just didn’t come to play, which will be interesting to watch Thursday against Oral Roberts. McBrayer will be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Michael Hurt because of a lower leg injury.   

RESTING MURPHY – The Gophers need to be able to rest Murphy in the last three nonconference games, including against Oral Roberts and Florida Atlantic on Saturday. What’s more important: Murphy extending his double-double streak (currently at 12) or making sure he’s fresh and ready to continue wreaking havoc in the paint once the Big Ten season starts again in early January? Minnesota finally had an extended break with 10 days off between games. That meant more time to get away from just quick turnarounds and game preparation. The team could actually work on player development for once. Nobody needed it more than Davonte Fitzgerald. Remember when Richard Pitino said Fitzgerald was arguably the most talented player on the court at times in preseason practice a year ago. That’s why it’s so disappointing to see Pitino wondering if Fitzgerald can make an impact now? He played him only two minutes in last week’s 68-67 win against Drake. The former Texas A&M transfer sat out for two years after transferring and suffering a second knee injury, but he still has impressive length and athletic ability. He should be able to help rebound, defend and score a little, right? Something happened to Fitzgerald’s confidence after his season-high 13 points and eight rebounds in a win against Alabama A&M on Nov. 21. Since then, the 6-foot-8 junior forward has just five points combined on 2-for-15 shooting from the field. He’s scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting in his last five games. The best thing that can happen Thursday is Fitzgerald finally ends his slump and Murphy gets to sit on the bench late in the second half and save his legs for conference play.

HARRIS SIGHTING – Why would you not play your best three-point shooter? That’s the question media members and fans have been asking themselves about Pitino not playing freshman guard Jamir Harris the last three games. The easy answer is he wasn’t ready to play on the road at Nebraska and Arkansas. And Minnesota’s coaches trusted their primary guard rotation more to help come from behind to beat Drake last week. Pitino believes Harris is doing all the right things in practice and will be a good player in time. But the Gophers coach said his young guard is still trying to figure out what he needs to do and where he needs to be on the court. That’s typical for freshmen. They need time to understand how to play at the next level. But Harris is smarter than most freshmen (had Ivy League school offers). He’s also the team’s most lethal outside shooter (47.6 percent from beyond the arc). Maybe Pitino feels it’s time soon for Harris to get some experience before the Big Ten. They might need him down the road.

GAME INFO

Time: 7 p.m. CT, Thursday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota by 22 points. Series: Minnesota leads 3-0. Minnesota won last meeting 67-54 at home in 2005. TV: None. Online/Live video: BTN Plus Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA (9-3)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Nate Mason 6-2 Sr. 15.5

G – Amir Coffey 6-8 So. 14.3

F – Michael Hurt 6-7 So. 2.0

F – Jordan Murphy 6-7 Jr. 20.2

C – Reggie Lynch 6-10 Sr. 10.7

Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, Fr., 7.5 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 2.4 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Sr., 1.1 ppg; Jamir Harris, G, 6-1, Fr., 3.6 ppg; Gaston Diedhiou, F/C, 6-10, Sr., 3.5 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 102-78 (6th season)  

Notable: The Gophers will honor senior center Reggie Lynch before Thursday’s game for scoring 1,000 points in his career in two seasons at Minnesota and two at Illinois State. The next in line to reach the 1,000-point mark is Jordan Murphy, who needs just 13 points Thursday. How many of you think Murphy will surpass that total in the first half against Oral Roberts?

Oral Roberts (4-10)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG                                         

G – R.J. Fuqua 5-11 Fr. 8.9

G – Sam Kearns 6-0 So. 9.6

F – Emmanuel Nzekwesi 6-8 So. 12.4

F – Javan White 6-10 So. 11.1

C – Chris Miller 6-8 So. 5.1

Key reserves– Albert Owens, C, 6-8, Sr., 13.4 ppg; Austin Ruder, G, 6-3, Sr., 11.5 ppg; Jontray Harris, G, 6-4, Jr., 3.0 ppg; Spencer Sutton, G, 6-4, Fr., 1.2 ppg.

Coach: Paul Mills 4-10 (1st season)  

Notable: Senior center Albert Owens leads the Golden Eagles in scoring this season. He was also a first-team All-Summit League preseason selection. But Owens hasn’t started the last three games, including Tuesday in a 106-64 loss at Arkansas. Oral Roberts was 2-1 in that stretch with wins against Missouri State and Florida Gulf Coast. Owens missed the Missouri State game because of a one-game suspension. Mills said the suspension wasn’t for “criminal or academic” reasons. One thing is for sure, though, Owens hasn’t been himself since the suspension. He has scored a combined 14 points the last two games.

Fuller’s prediction (10-2 picks record)Gophers 88, Oral Roberts 74. Minnesota’s players could use a blowout victory Thursday in the worst way. The fans also need to see the Gophers run away with Oral Roberts and look like the team that had been ranked in the top 25 all season. Rankings don’t mean much at all in December. But it does mean something to fall out of NCAA tournament contention no matter what time of the year it is. Minnesota is currently a No. 8 seed, according to ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi’s latest projections Thursday. Any losses in the next five home games against non-NCAA tournament teams would drop the Gophers from NCAA tourney bracket predictions. So they need to be weary of that. Everyone expects the Gophers to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten this season. But they can’t afford to overlook any mid-majors the next three games or they will suffer the consequences. Just look what happened Wednesday night when Wofford upset No. 5 North Carolina, a 25-point favorite.

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