GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. OHIO STATE

FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:

Defensive identity

Richard Pitino laughed when it was brought up to him that the Gophers had their best defensive showing of his seven-year tenure holding Michigan State to 25.7 shooting from the field in the 81-56 victory this season. Obviously, Pitino doesn't just judge performances on field goal percentages, but it was the lowest an opponent ever shot against one of his Minnesota teams. The complete opposite occurred in Thursday's 71-59 loss at Wisconsin, because the Badgers shot 50 percent overall, including 65 percent in the second half. Clearly, the Gophers let their frustration offensively carry over to the other side of the floor after scoring a season-low 22 points in the first half on 19 percent shooting. There will be more tough shooting nights in the Big Ten, but Pitino said his players can't afford to let that influence the type of defensive identity that can help them win games. The Gophers rank sixth in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense (40.8) and fifth in three-point percentage defense (31.4).

Size advantage in the middle

The Gophers capitalized on their size advantage at center against Michigan State in their last victory at home. Seven-footer Liam Robbins finished with 12 of his 18 points in the first half to help his team lead by 20 points at halftime. Robbins, who has scored in double figures in seven straight games, has been battle tested against Big Ten centers having faced Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, Iowa's Luka Garza and Wisconsin's Micah Potter, who all joined him on the preseason watch list for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award given to the nation's top center. Foul trouble hurt Robbins against Cockburn and Garza in the first half. He was able to stay on the floor against Potter, but Robbins struggled to put pressure on the Badgers big man. Potter finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Wisconsin scored 40 points in the paint. Ohio State goes through undersized 6-7 sophomore E.J. Liddell in the paint, but he is averaging a team-high 14.4 points and 6.5 rebounds this season. The Buckeyes make up for a lack of size in the frontcourt with physical toughness and athleticism. Liddell had 21 points, six rebounds and two blocks in a win against a bigger Rutgers' squad on Dec. 23.

The Gophers rely on seniors Eric Curry and Brandon Johnson and sophomore Isaiah Ihnen to give Robbins support in the frontcourt. Johnson, who has been in the starting lineup the past two games, had 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks against the Badgers.

Rebounding margin

The Gophers are last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-1.0), but they won the battle of the boards for the second straight game 39-36 in the Wisconsin loss, which included 16 offensive rebounds. They beat up Michigan State on the glass 52-36 after getting outrebounded by Illinois (minus-18) and Iowa (minus-17) in their first two Big Ten games. Robbins leads the Gophers (7.0) in rebounding this season, but he hasn't cracked double figures in rebounding yet. That distinction belongs to Ihnen, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds vs. St. Louis. Junior starting guard Both Gach is one of the top rebounding guards (5.7) in the Big Ten and ranks second on the team, but he had zero rebounds against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes, who outrebounded Rutgers 45-25 in a victory this season, ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (plus-4.8) in overall games but No. 1 in conference play (plus-9.5) in four games.

Free-throw fancy

The Gophers made 34 free throws against UMKC and St. Louis this year, which was the third most made free throws for any Division I team in regulation at the time. They currently rank No. 1 in the Big Ten and nationally in free throws made per game (21.7) this year. It's a drastic improvement from last season when Minnesota ranked 285th nationally with 11.5 foul shots made per game. In the five early losses in November and early December last year, the Gophers shot just 57.8 percent at the foul line, but they also scored only 9.6 points a game on free throws. Now they're getting to the line twice as more and converting 76.1 percent, ranked third in the Big Ten. Getting to the line is obviously a strength for Pitino's team. But getting outshot at the line isn't as detrimental as it was last year. They 5-14 when outshot by their opponent on free throws last season. But they're 2-0 in the same situation this season in the last two wins vs. Iowa and Michigan State. Carr ranks second behind Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis (6.3) for the most made free throws per game (5.9) in the Big Ten this season.

GAME INFO

Time:4:30 p.m. CT, Sunday.Where:Williams Arena.Line:Minnesota and Ohio State even.Series:Ohio State leads the series 87-59, but the Gophers won the last meeting 62-59 in Columbus last season.TV: Big Ten Network.Online/Live video: BTN-Plus.Radio:100.3 KFAN.

PROJECTED STARTERS

NO. 21 MINNESOTA GOPHERS(9-2, 2-2)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 195 Jr.22.7

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 Jr. 9.8

G – Both Gach 6-6 185 Jr. 11.1

F – Brandon Johnson 6-8 220 Sr. 8.9

C – Liam Robbins 7-0 235 Jr. 13.0

Key reserves– Eric Curry, F-C, 6-9, Sr., 4.5 ppg; Jamal Mashburn Jr., G, 6-2, Fr., 4.5 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, So., 2.8 ppg; Tre' Williams, G, 6-5, So., 3.3 ppg.

Coach:Richard Pitino 154-124 (9th season overall)

Notable: In the Nov. 25 opener against Green Bay, Gophers redshirt senior big man Eric Curry played his first game since the 2018-19 season. Curry, who started the first two games, bounced back from his second major knee injury after missing last season following a torn right anterior cruciate ligament in preseason practice. The 6-foot-9 Memphis native is the last remaining scholarship player from the U's first NCAA tournament team under Pitino in 2017. Senior forward Brandon Johnson missed the Dec. 10 win vs. UMKC with a left ankle injury, but he returned the next game. Johnson's breakout performance came soon after with a season-high 26 points on 8-for-9 shooting from three in the 102-95 overtime win vs. Iowa. His three-point percentage in a game was a school record … In two games vs. Ohio State last season, Marcus Carr averaged 28 points on 63 percent shooting from the field (19 for 30), including a career-high 35 points in the 84-71 win at home.

NO. 25 OHIO STATE BUCKEYES (8-2, 2-2)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – C.J. Walker 6-1 195 Sr. 9.4

G – Duane Washington Jr. 6-3 190 Jr. 14.3

F – Justice Sueing Jr. 6-7 215 Jr. 11.0

F – Kyle Young 6-9 225 Sr. 7.7

F – E.J. Liddell 6-7 240 So. 14.4

Key reserves– Justin Ahrens, F, 6-6, Jr., 5.7 ppg; Eugene Brown III, F, 6-6, Fr., 2.2; Seth Towns, F, 6-8, Sr., 6.5 ppg; Zed Key, F, 6-8, Fr., 7.1 ppg; Jimmy Sotos, G, 6-3, Sr., 1.4 ppg.

Coach: Chris Holtmann 188-121 (10th season)

Notable:he No. 25 Buckeyes (8-2, 2-1) come to Williams Arena on Sunday trying to win their first Big Ten road game after falling 67-60 at Purdue and 71-70 at Northwestern. They won 90-54 on Wednesday against Nebraska, their highest scoring game in the league since 2019. Ohio State was swept by the Gophers last season for the first time since 2005, including a 62-59 Gophers win in the last meeting in Columbus. That game came down to a last-second three-pointer from Carr.

Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 7-4):Gophers 76 Ohio State 73.