GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. PURDUE FORT WAYNE
FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:
It didn't take long for first-year coach Ben Johnson to figure out his starting lineup, which has been the same for the Gophers' first three games this season. The rotation hasn't changed during the 3-0 start with Johnson using barely a seven-man rotation.
After Sunday's 87-80 double overtime win against Princeton to earn the Asheville Championship crown, four of Minnesota's starters now lead the Big Ten in minutes played in Jamison Battle (41.0), Luke Loewe (39.0), Payton Willis (38.7), and E.J. Stephens (38.3). The only big man in the league averaging more minutes played than the U's Eric Curry (29.3) are Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis (33.3) and Maryland's Donta Scott (30.0).
Sure, the Gophers saw their player minutes skewed with the overtime win, but saying Johnson has not relied much on his bench is an understatement. In fact, the Gophers rank 357 out of 358 Division I teams in bench minutes percentage (13.2). Only Florida A&M is lower at 11.4%, according to Kenpom.com.
Seniors Sean Sutherlin and Charlie Daniels average a combined 28.6 minutes this season off the bench. They are the only two Minnesota reserves playing more than four minutes per game.
"I feel like we a lot more depth than we've shown," Sutherlin said. "We have Laye Thiam who hasn't played so much. Treyton Thompson who is a young freshmen. Just getting them more accustomed to Power Five basketball I feel like will make us better."
Two seasons ago, the Gophers rolled out a starting backcourt with transfers Marcus Carr and Payton Willis after they sat out during the 2018-19 season.
Both Carr and Willis had played at the high major level with Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt, respectively. They had a full year to digest Richard Pitino's system and develop chemistry, but they didn't play well together.
Minnesota got off to a 2-4 start, including three straight losses after opening the season with a victory at home. But backcourt chemistry hasn't appeared to be an issue at all with the Gophers this year.
Willis is off to the best start of his career coming off Asheville Championship MVP honors with a 29-point, 10-rebound performance in Sunday's title game. His scoring has been a product of heavy minutes and other guards being fine with so far taking a backseat approach.
Stephens, who had 18 points in the win against Western Kentucky in Asheville, might be called upon as soon as Friday night against Fort Wayne to be a go-to scorer again, but Loewe seems more accepting of a facilitator role right now.
Points in the paint
The Gophers will have a tough time holding their own this season against a loaded Big Ten in the post, including Purdue's 7-4 Zach Eddy and 6-10 Trevion Williams, Illinois' 7-foot, 290-pound Kofi Cockburn, Michigan's 7-2 Hunter Dickinson, Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis, and Ohio State's E.J. Liddell.
Fortunately, the bulk of the Big Ten schedule doesn't start until January. But the Gophers have already been tested inside. Opponents have outscored them 122-82 in points in the paint in the first three games, including 56-44 against an undersized Princeton squad.
Instead of calling it quits on an injury-plagued career, Curry is back and playing the best basketball since his freshman year. The 6-9 senior is averaging career-highs in points (8.7), rebounds (6.7), assists (1.7), blocks (1.7), steals (1.0), and minutes (29.3).
But the Gophers will need more paint production as the season progresses. Daniels, a Stephen F. Austin transfer, has been helpful defensively, but he's only 1-for-4 from the field in three games.
With 7-footer Liam Robbins transferring to Vanderbilt, the only player taller than 6-9 on the Gophers' roster is the 6-11 freshmen Thompson, who has only played a minute this season.
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.
Former Gophers coach Richard Pitino thought he had a good shooting team but didn't have the numbers to back up that talk. Johnson actually does through three games.
After hitting 11 threes in the exhibition win over Concordia-St. Paul, the Gophers have kept it going by shooting 38.1% (24-for-63) from the three this season, ranking third among Big Ten teams.
Willis led the way ranking fourth in the Big Ten with 47.4% shooting from long distance (9-for-19). Battle is tied for the team lead with nine threes, but he's also shooting 37.5% for seventh in the conference.
Stephens, who was clutch against Western Kentucky with 4-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc, is 19th in the league with 1.7 threes per game.
The Gophers don't just shoot it better so far this season, but they're improved guarding the deep shot as well. They rank No. 2 in the Big Ten in three-point defense (24.6%).
Time: 6 p.m. CT, Friday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers 11-point favorite. Series: Gophers first meeting. TV: None. Online/Live video: BTN-Plus. Radio: 100.3 KFAN
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (3-0)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Payton Willis 6-4 195 Sr. 20.3
G – E.J. Stephens 6-3 190 Sr. 12.0
G – Luke Loewe 6-4 190 Sr. 7.0
F – Jamison Battle 6-7 225 So. 20.7
F – Eric Curry 6-9 245 Sr. 8.7
Reserves– Sean Sutherlin, G/F, 6-5, Sr., 7.3 ppg; Charlie Daniels, C/F, 6-9, Sr., 1.0 ppg.
Coach: Ben Johnson 3-0 (1st season)
Notable: In his last game at the Barn last season, Curry was honored with Brandon Johnson (transferred to DePaul) and walk-on Hunt Conroy on Senior Day. Curry was hoping to pursue a graduate assistant coaching role, but he was convinced to play a sixth season. And now he's the starting center for the Gophers, who are thin in the frontcourt … Junior forwards Parker Fox (Northern State transfer) and Isaiah Ihnen are sidelined indefinitely after offseason knee surgery. Fox, who tore his ACL and MCL in late March, could possibly make a full recovery by January.
PURDUE FORT WAYNE (2-0)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Damian Chong Qui 5-8 Sr. 10.0
G – Jarred Godfrey 6-5 Sr. 14.5
F – Jalon Pipkins 6-4 Sr. 14.5
F – Bobby Planutis 6-8 Sr. 4.5
C – Ra Kpedi 6-9 Sr. 14.0
Reserves – Jarvis Walker, G, 6-2, So., 7.0 ppg; Deonte Billups, G, 6-4, Jr., 11.0 ppg; Cameron Benford, F, 6-8, Sr., 3.5 ppg; R.J. Ogom, G, 6-6, Fr., 7.0 ppg.
Coach: Jon Coffman 120-102 (8th season)
Notable: The Mastodons have never started the season with a 3-0 record since becoming a Division I program in 2001-02. In a 103-54 opening win against Division III Earlham College, Fort Wayne finished with 44 bench points, the most since Dec. 20, 2018. Coffman's team is predicted to finish ninth in the Horizon League, but the Mastodons were the only Division I team to rank in the top five in field goal (50.1) and 3-point field goal percentage (40.0) last season.
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 2-1): Gophers 78, Fort Wayne 69.