GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. PITTSBURGH (ACC/B1G Challenge)
FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:
Road woes over?
The Gophers were underdogs when they went on the road for the first time this season to play Western Kentucky on Nov. 11 to open the Asheville Championship in North Carolina.
The Hilltoppers had a size advantage and more athleticism, but they were outplayed by Ben Johnson's squad from the opening tip. Sophomore Jamison Battle scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half to help give his team a 12-point halftime advantage. That big lead was almost squandered in the second half, but the Gophers pulled out the 73-69 upset.
That was a neutral site victory, but Western Kentucky fans showed up in force to cheer on their team in Asheville. To snap the program's 12-game losing streak in true road games, the Gophers will likely need to get off to the same fast start to quiet the crowd in Tuesday's ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup at Pittsburgh.
Former Minnesota coach Richard Pitino finished 0-10 on the road last season in the Big Ten. The Gophers avoided traveling during non-league play due to the pandemic, so their last win in a true road game was at Northwestern on Feb. 23, 2020.
The last true road win in nonconference for the Gophers was 86-74 at Providence on Nov. 13, 2017. Their last road win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge was 84-69 at Wake Forest on Dec. 2, 2014. Current graduate assistant Andre Hollins was a starting senior guard on that team in Pitino's second season.
Trust is something first-year Gophers coach Ben Johnson takes pretty seriously when it comes to the players he puts on the floor at any point in the game. And it's part of the reason that the Gophers have such a short rotation in the first five games this season.
Minnesota primarily plays only seven players and ranks 356th out of 358 Division I teams in bench minutes percentage (15.2), last among high major teams, per Kenpom.com.
Starters Payton Willis, Luke Loewe, E.J. Stephens, Battle, and Eric Curry are all among the Big Ten leaders in minutes played this season.
Sean Sutherlin and Charlie Daniels, among the six seniors in the rotation, average a combined 31 minutes this season off the bench. They're the only two reserves playing more than 4.2 minutes per game.
Freshmen Treyton Thompson and Abdoulaye Thiam showed glimpses in scrimmages before the season that they might be able to contribute, but Johnson is more comfortable relying solely on veterans at their positions.
"At the end of the day, with those younger guys it's always about trust," Johnson said earlier this month. "It's just developing the trust with the head coach. Unfair to them we have a bunch of veteran guys who have been playing five or six years."
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.
The bulk of the Big Ten schedule doesn't start until January, but the Gophers will play four straight games against power conference opponents, starting Tuesday at Pittsburgh.
The Panthers are led by 6-9, 280-pound sophomore John Hugley, who leads them in scoring (14.3) and rebounding (7.2) this season. Hugley, a rugged and physical inside presence, was the lone bright spot Saturday with 21 points and seven rebounds in Pitt's 88-77 loss against UMBC at home.
Instead of calling it quits on an injury-plagued career, Gophers co-captain Eric Curry is back and playing the best basketball since his freshman year. The 6-9 senior is averaging career-highs in points (7.0), rebounds (6.8), assists (1.8), blocks (1.4), and minutes (28.0).
But the Gophers will need to give Curry some help scoring in the paint to compete during this tough stretch, which includes playing Sunday at Mississippi State and early Big Ten games vs. Michigan State and Michigan in December.
They rank last in the country entering Tuesday at 358th in offensive rebounding percentage (14.1), per Kenpom.com. Daniels, a Stephen F. Austin transfer, has been helpful defensively in limited action, but he's only 3-for-9 shooting from the field this season.
With 7-footer Liam Robbins transferring to Vanderbilt, the only player taller than 6-9 on the Gophers' roster is the 6-11 Thompson, but he has only played five minutes combined in two games.
Free throw factor
The Gophers are last in the Big Ten and 169th nationally in free throws made per game (12.4) this season, but that hasn't come back to bite them yet.
It helped that several of their opponents have averaged even fewer free throws made. Princeton (10.8), Purdue Fort Wayne (10.5), Missouri Kansas City (8.0), and Jacksonville (7.7) have all barely got to the foul line this year.
In a 55-44 win against Jacksonville last week, the Gophers barely got to the line at 5-for-6 shooting. But the Dolphins went just 5-for-8 on free throws.
So what happens when Minnesota faces an opponent that is better at drawing fouls? We'll see tonight with Pittsburgh ranked 90th in the country at 14.5 free throws made per game. The Panthers get the charity stripe often, but they struggle shooting just 60.4% at the line. That ranks last in the ACC and 340th nationally.
Time: 6 p.m. CT, Tuesday. Where: Petersen Events Center. Line: Gophers 2.5-point favorite. Series: Pittsburgh leads series 1-2, but the last meeting was 72-43 victory for the Gophers at home in 1950. TV: ESPNU. Online/Live video: WatchESPN. Radio: 100.3 KFAN
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (5-0)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Payton Willis 6-4 195 Sr. 16.6
G – E.J. Stephens 6-3 190 Sr. 11.4
G – Luke Loewe 6-4 190 Sr. 7.0
F – Jamison Battle 6-7 225 So. 17.8
F – Eric Curry 6-9 245 Sr. 7.0
Key reserves– Sean Sutherlin, G/F, 6-5, Sr., 10.2 ppg; Charlie Daniels, C/F, 6-9, Sr., 1.4 ppg.
Coach: Ben Johnson 5-0 (1st season)
Notable: The Gophers shot a program-low 28.4% from three last season, but they've made a significant jump to 34.6% this season through five games. They're even better at three-point defense holding opponents to 21.4% shooting, which ranks second in Division I … Sutherlin led the Gophers with 19 points on 7-for-7 shooting from the field and seven rebounds in the Nov. 19 win against Purdue Fort Wayne. The New Brighton, Minn., native scored the most points (44) combined in consecutive games off the bench since former Gophers guard Isaiah Washington during the 2017-18 season … 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.
Pittsburgh Panthers (2-4)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Femi Odukale 6-5 205 So. 13.7
G – William Jeffress 6-7 205 So. 6.5
F – Dan Oladapo 6-7 220 Sr. 5.8
F – Nate Santos 6-7 215 Fr. 7.2
F – John Hugley 6-9 280 So. 14.3
Reserves – Jamarius Burton, G, 6-4, Sr., 8.5 ppg; Mouhamadou Gueye, F, 6-10, Sr., 5.5 ppg; Noah Collier, G, 6-8, So., 2.0 ppg; Max Amadasun, C, 6-10, So., 2.0 ppg.
Coach: Jeff Capel 217-162 (13th season)
Notable: The Panthers started the season 8-2 last year, including a win over Duke behind Justin Champagnie's 31 points and 14 rebounds. Jeff Capel looked like he was on the verge of turning around the program, but they collapsed with 10 losses in the last 12 games. Champagnie declared for the NBA draft and went undrafted, but he signed a two-way contract with the Toronto Raptors … Pittsburgh brought in five newcomers, including transfers Jamarius Burton (Texas Tech), Dan Oladapo (Oakland), Mohamadou Gueye (Stony Brook).
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 4-1): Gophers 76, Pittsburgh 73.