GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. WESTERN KENTUCKY (ASHEVILLE CHAMPIONSHIP)
FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:
Ben Johnson didn't blow up at his team after calling a timeout with a 12-point lead trimmed to two late in the second half of Tuesday's 71-56 opening win against Missouri Kansas City.
The first-year Gophers coach told his players to stay calm and poised while facing adversity for the first time this season, but most of them already had been there before.
One of the advantages of having one of the oldest teams in college basketball is a maturity level that prepares you for almost every game situation.
In Minnesota's case entering tonight's Asheville Championship opener against Western Kentucky, it has the second most experienced team (2.61 years) in the Big Ten and 19th nationally, according to KenPom.com. Only Penn State (2.77 years) has more experience in the Big Ten.
Johnson added 10 scholarship newcomers to the roster this season, but six are senior transfers. Sixth-year senior Eric Curry is the only returning player in the rotation, but he's not the only one with Big Ten experience. Senior guard Payton Willis played for the Gophers in 2019-20 and Vanderbilt in his first two seasons.
How that experience translates to winning more games down the stretch this season remains to be seen, but it was a factor in the Gophers' 17-4 run to finish off UMKC.
Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury also has the most experienced team in Conference USA and 34th in the country after bringing in several transfers.
Battle blowing up
Don't tell the Gophers they have a go-to guy yet on this team. They won't admit it even if that were true. This group is too unselfish, which was evident in the 17 assists on 24 field goals in the opening win.
Still, sophomore Jamison Battle is the closest thing to a go-to scorer for this team right now. The 6-7 George Washington transfer and former DeLaSalle standout is averaging 21 points on 53.6% shooting from the field, including 35.3% from three-point range in two games (exhibition included). He's also perfect at 6-for-6 from the foul line, but he only took one free throw against UMKC.
Of course, Battle has officially only one game under his belt with the Gophers. That would be leading the Gophers with 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting in the opening win. Battle's sister, Amaya, also signed Wednesday with Gophers women's coach Lindsay Whalen to begin the national early signing period.
Behind Battle for top scoring honors through two games (exhibition included) is Willis and senior guard E.J. Stephens averaging 17.0 points and 11.5 points, respectively.
Last season, the Gophers have a 7-footer that could battle against towering big men in the Big Ten, including Purdue's 7-4 Zach Eddy, Illinois' 7-foot Kofi Cockburn, and Michigan's 7-2 Hunter Dickinson.
All three of those big boys returned this season, but former Gopher center Liam Robbins transferred to Vanderbilt. Now the task of defending the giants falls to an undersized frontcourt for the Gophers, who will see the tallest player in college basketball Friday in Asheville.
Simulating Hilltoppers 7-5 center Jamarion Sharp is impossible in practice. The junior college standout came off the bench in the opener to finish with four points, eight rebounds, and two blocks in just 12 minutes. So it will be interesting to see how much he plays against the Gophers.
Western Kentucky also has 6-10, 295-pound Darrius Miles on their roster. Stansbury's starting frontcourt isn't too big with 6-9 Jaylon Butz and 6-8 Jarius Hamilton, both transfers.
But UMKC's 6-8 center Josiah Allick had a game-high 21 points in Tuesday's loss to the Gophers.
Robbins, who ranked second on the team in points (11.7), first in rebounds (6.6) and led the Big Ten in blocks (2.7), will be missed. Trying to replace his inside presence won't come from just one player. Curry and Stephen F. Austin transfer Charlie Daniels rotate at center. But the Gophers might need help from 6-11 freshman Treyton Thompson, who didn't play in the opener.
The Gophers shot a program-low 28.4% from three last season but were 46th nationally and second in the Big Ten with 25.2 attempts per game. They finished third in team history with 730 three-point attempts. That's a head-scratcher for sure.
As much as former Gophers coach Richard Pitino talked about not wanting his players to shoot so many three-pointers, they let them fly with reckless abandon anyway.
After hitting 11 threes in the exhibition win over Concordia-St. Paul, the Gophers were 8-for-22 against UMKC from long distance. Carrying over from their seven combined three-pointers in exhibition, Battle and Willis were 6-for-15 from beyond the arc in the opening win. Luke Loewe and Stephens were the only other players with threes.
Time: 5:30 p.m. CT, Friday. Where: Harrah's Cherokee Center. Line: Western Kentucky 3-point favorite. Series: Gophers lead the series 2-0, including 76-54 win in 2014 NIT Tip-Off. TV: ESPNU. Online/Live video: WatchESPN Radio: 100.3 KFAN
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (1-0)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Payton Willis 6-4 195 Sr. 13.0
G – E.J. Stephens 6-3 190 Sr. 13.0
G – Luke Loewe 6-4 190 Sr. 9.0
F – Jamison Battle 6-7 225 So. 18.0
F – Eric Curry 6-9 245 Sr. 7.0
Reserves– Sean Sutherlin, G/F, 6-5, Sr., 8.0 ppg; Charlie Daniels, C/F, 6-9, Sr., 3.0 ppg; Will Ramberg, F, 6-5, Fr., 0.0 ppg; Abdoulaye Thiam, G, 6-3, Fr; Treyton Thompson, F/C, 6-11, Fr; Danny Ogele, F, 6-7, Sr.
Coach: Ben Johnson 1-0 (1st season)
Notable: In his last game at the Barn last season, Eric Curry was honored with Brandon Johnson and walk-on Hunt Conroy on Senior Day. Curry was hoping to pursue a graduate assistant coaching role after this season, but he was convinced to play a sixth season. And now he's the starting center for the Gophers, who are as thin in the frontcourt as any Big Ten team … Junior forward Parker Fox (Northern State transfer) and Isaiah Ihnen are sidelined indefinitely after offseason knee surgeries. Fox, who tore his ACL and MCL in late March, could possibly make a full recovery by January … The Gophers and Hilltoppers last squared off with the Big Ten taking the matchup over Conference USA in a 76-54 victory in the NIT Tip-Off campus game at the Barn in 2014. Mo Walker led the way with 14 points. Starting in the backcourt for the Gophers that night was Andre Hollins, who is in his second season as a U graduate assistant.
WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS (1-0)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Dayvion McKnight 6-1 195 So. 19.0
G – Luke Frampton 6-5 205 Sr. 5.0
F – Josh Anderson 6-6 190 Sr. 12.0
F – Jairus Hamilton 6-8 230 Sr. 21.0
C – Jaylen Butz 6-9 230 Sr. 12.0
Reserves – Jamarion Sharp, C, 7-5, Jr., 4.0 ppg; Sherman Brashear, G, 6-5, So., 6.0 ppg; Noah Stansbury, G, 6-0, Fr., 0.0 ppg.
Coach: Rick Stansbury 397-226 (20th season)
Notable: The Hilltoppers were heavily favored over Alabama State in their season opener but trailed by 14 points in the first half Tuesday at home. They cut it to a two-point deficit down the stretch before Dayvion McKnight ignited a 9-0 run to escape with a 79-74 win. McKnight finished with 19 points, six assists, and five rebounds in a career-high 40 minutes. McKnight was Kentucky's Mr. Basketball Award winner last year ... Freshman guard Zion Harmon is questionable to play Friday against the Gophers with an injury.
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 1-0): Western Kentucky 73, Gophers 70