GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. OHIO STATE (BIG TEN TOURNAMENT)

FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:

Defensive identity

When the Gophers lost Liam Robbins and Gabe Kalscheur to injuries last month that completely changed their defensive identity.

Robbins was the Big Ten's top shot blocker and could erase mistakes by his teammates for allowing penetration to the basket. Kalscheur several times locked down the opponent's top perimeter scorer. Both players were candidates for the all-league defensive team.

"Our defense struggled more than our offense without Gabe and Liam," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "We couldn't guard at all."

That changed in Wednesday's 51-46 Big Ten tournament opening win against Northwestern. The Gophers had one of their worst offensive performances in more than a decade. It was their fewest points scored in a win since early in the Tubby Smith Era with a 51-46 victory against Wisconsin on March 4, 2009.

Pitino's team jumped out to a 16-2 lead after Northwestern shot just 1-for-15 to open the game. It didn't get any better for the Wildcats, who shot 31% from the field on the night. They had no players score in double figures and were just 5-for-12 on free throws.

The Gophers-Northwestern opener Wednesday was the first Division I game in eight years where both teams shot under 40% field goals, under 30% three-pointers and under 45% free throws.

Maybe all of the credit shouldn't go to the Gophers defensively, but Pitino saw they were much more engaged and disciplined guarding than he had seen in several games. They held Northwestern scoreless in the last 3:58 Wednesday to end on a 12-0 run.

That type of effort could help Minnesota compete with No. 5 seed Ohio State in the second round matchup this afternoon.

Frontcourt battle

In the Gophers' 77-60 win Jan. 3 against Ohio State, Robbins put together one of the best performances for a Big Ten center all season with 27 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks and four assists.

In fact, Robbins was the first Division I player since former Duke star Zion Williamson in 2018 to record at least 25 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks and four assists in a game, per college basketball reference. The last Big Ten player to do so was Wisconsin's Ethan Happ in 2017.

You can bet the Buckeyes never saw that coming, but they sure will remember that pounding this time around.

Problem is Robbins is sidelined with a sprained left ankle for the sixth straight game today. The Gophers haven't filled that void offensively in his absence. And now they'll face a formidable post presence on the opposing side with Buckeyes sophomore E.J. Liddell.

Liddell, an undersized 6-7 center, leads Ohio State with 16.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks, was named All-Big Ten first team by coaches this week. He had just 10 points on 3-for-11 shooting in the last meeting with the Gophers.

But Liddell is averaging 19.5 points per game in his last six games, which included 23 points and 10 rebounds against Michigan.

Pitino will look to seniors Brandon Johnson and Eric Curry to give the Gophers a frontcourt presence. They both had double-figure rebounding (Curry 12 rebounds and Johnson 10 rebounds) efforts against Northwestern.

Johnson had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the regular season-ending loss vs. Rutgers last weekend, but his ankle looked to be an issue for him offensively Wednesday. He had just five points on 1-for-7 shooting vs. Northwestern.

Rebounding margin

The Gophers are the second-to-worst team in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-3.4), but that wasn't always the case this season.

Minnesota got after it on the glass to win the battle of the boards for three straight games vs. Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State earlier in the season. But that wasn't enough to overcome being outrebounded by Illinois twice (minus-18 and minus-10), Iowa twice (minus-17 and minus-6), Michigan twice (minus-9 and minus-4), Maryland (minus-8), Purdue (minus-17) on the road, Northwestern (minus-4), Nebraska (minus-2) and Penn State (minus-7).

During a three-game win streak in December, the Gophers made strides holding their own on the boards. They were barely outrebounded by Rutgers and Purdue (both minus-two), two of the most physical teams in the Big Ten in January. They grabbed 16 offensive boards vs. Rutgers in the first meeting and vs. Nebraska at home. And they followed that up with 13 offensive rebounds in their victory vs. Purdue at home.

Robbins, who had his third double-double this season with 11 points and 10 rebounds vs. Purdue at home, led the Gophers (6.6) in rebounding during the regular season. But this isn't like years past when Jordan Murphy (twice) and Daniel Oturu (last season) led the Big Ten in rebounding. They were good for 10-12 rebounds every night. It had to be more of a team effort this year.

On Wednesday, the Gophers outrebounded Northwestern 41-39, including Johnson and Curry combining for 22 rebounds in the frontcourt.

Free-throw fancy

The Gophers were atrocious from the foul line in Wednesday's win against Northwestern going 10-for-24. It was the most missed free throws in a game since going 23-for-38 in a win vs. Santa Clara in the Vancouver Showcase on Nov. 18, 2018. Crazy thing is the game before that the Gophers missed 14 free throws in a win vs. Santa Clara.

Missing so many free throws was out of character for the Gophers on Wednesday. They still currently rank No. 1 in the Big Ten and fifth nationally in free throws made per game overall (17.0), but that number dropped to 14.5 free throws made in Big Ten games. This season is still a major upgrade from last year when they ranked 285thnationally with 11.5 foul shots made per game. They're getting to the line nearly twice as often and converting 74 percent, ranked fourth in the Big Ten. Getting to the line is obviously a strength for Pitino's team. Getting outshot there has been detrimental. They were 5-14 when outshot by their opponent on free throws last season. They're 3-8 in the same situation this season.

Carr, who shoots 81% from the foul line, ranked second in the Big Ten with 145 free throws made this season. Carr was 59-for-66 from the foul line (89.3%) in his last 11 regular season games before going just 4-for-8 from the foul line in Wednesday's Big Ten tournament opener.

GAME INFO

Time: 1 p.m. CT, Thursday. Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Line: Ohio State 11-point favorite. Series: Ohio State leads the series 89-54, including 77-60 loss Jan. 3, 2021 at Williams Arena. TV:BTN. Online/Live video:BTNPlusRadio: 100.3 KFAN

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (14-14)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 195 Jr. 19.3

G – Jamal Mashburn Jr. 6-2 175 Fr. 7.8

G – Tre' Williams 6-5 195 So. 5.6

F – Brandon Johnson 6-8 220 Sr. 8.9

F – Eric Curry 6-9 240 Sr. 3.8

Reserves– Both Gach, G, 6-6, Jr., 6.7 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, So., 2.8 ppg; Sam Freeman, C, 6-10, So., 1.0 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 159-136 (9th season overall)

Notable:That Gophers finished as the only team without a road win in the Big Ten regular season at 0-10 this year, but they won their first game away from home this season in Wednesday's Big Ten opener vs. Northwestern. They still have a 12-game regular-season conference road losing streak dating back to last year's win at Northwestern. … Curry, Johnson and walk-on Hunt Conroy were honored last weekend on Senior Day at Williams Arena. Conroy and Curry are likely to pursue graduate assistant coaching roles after this season. Johnson has hinted he would strongly consider the NCAA's option for athletes during the pandemic to return for an extra year of eligibility.

NO. 8 OHIO STATE BUCKEYES (18-8)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – C.J. Walker 6-1 195 Sr. 9.1

G – Duane Washington Jr. 6-3 190 Jr. 15.3

F – Justice Sueing Jr. 6-7 215 Jr. 10.5

F – Kyle Young 6-9 225 Sr. 8.2

F – E.J. Liddell 6-7 240 So. 16.0

Key reserves– Justin Ahrens, F, 6-6, Jr., 6.4 ppg; Seth Towns, F, 6-8, Sr., 3.8 ppg; Zed Key, F, 6-8, Fr., 5.6 ppg; Musa Jallow, F, 6-5, Jr., 3.0 ppg.

Coach: Chris Holtmann 198-127 (10th season)

Notable: The Buckeyes went 10-1 after losing by 17 points at Minnesota on Jan. 3. They were ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation before ending Big Ten play on a four-game losing skid, including to three ranked opponents. Ohio State was swept by the Gophers last season for the first time since 2005, including a 62-59 win in Columbus. That game came down to a last-second three-pointer from Carr.

Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 18-10): Ohio State 75, Gophers 65.