GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS vs. MICHIGAN STATE
FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:
Live and die by the three – You could've made the case through the first seven games of the season that this was Richard Pitino's worst three-point shooting team based on the numbers. The Gophers ranked last in the Big Ten and among the worst nationally at 28.5 percent from long distance and only 6.4 made threes per game. But the Gophers were still attempting 22.6 threes per game, which means they still had the confidence to let it fly from deep. Shooters shoot as the cliché goes. The question earlier this year was did Pitino really have the team to keep shooting so many threes? That was answered in the last two games when Minnesota combined to shoot 27-for-68 (39.7 percent) in wins against St. Louis and Iowa, including 17-for-43 in last week's 101-95 overtime upset of the No. 4 Hawkeyes. Five different players hit threes against Iowa, but Marcus Carr and Brandon Johnson combined for 14-for-22 from beyond the arc. Carr's late three-pointer in regulation tied the game 83-83 eventually sending it into overtime. Johnson sealed the deal with 4-for-4 shooting from long distance in the extra period. Six different players hit from three against St. Louis, including Carr, Gabe Kalscheur, Both Gach and Jamal Mashburn Jr. with two each. Was it too early to label the Gophers as a poor shooting team after seven games? Maybe, but they can prove it by continuing to make teams pay from deep Monday night against Michigan State. The Spartans rank 12th in the Big Ten in three-point shooting defense (36 percent).
Ball movement – Pitino loved the Gophers ball movement in the last two games. He said it was the best of the season so far – and he had the numbers to back that up. He tweeted that the Gophers had 200 passes against St. Louis and 245 passes against Iowa. That's not a stat you see tracked in analytic sheets much, so Pitino had coaches asking him about it. "You can clearly see when we're moving the ball vs. staring at Marcus," he told media. Pitino prefers the Gophers have at least 200 passes per game and more importantly 2 ½ to three passes per possession. The higher number of passes against Iowa also came from the Hawkeyes pressing throughout the game. But the Gophers are averaging 80 possessions per game this season, leading all high-major teams with at least three games played.
Frontcourt rotation – The Gophers lost some frontcourt depth when junior forward Jarvis Omersa recently decided to opt out for the rest of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Omersa, who energized the team off the bench, had a backup role at center and power forward. The Gophers were also 8-1 when he grabbed four rebounds or more the last two seasons. Redshirt senior Eric Curry and sophomore Isaiah Ihnen provided that same type of boost in the first game without Omersa in the Dec. 20 win against St. Louis. Curry finished with a season-high nine points. Ihnen had his first career double-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. In last week's win against Iowa, Ihnen started at power forward alongside center Liam Robbins. But it was Johnson that provided the biggest spark with 26 points and nine rebounds off the bench, including 8-for-9 shooting from three-point range. Curry and sophomore center Sam Freeman took turns in the first half banging against Iowa's All-American Luka Garza, who was held to five points at halftime. Robbins got into foul trouble, but he returned in the second half to finish with 18 points and four blocks against the Hawkeyes. It seems Pitino might have found a frontcourt rotation that works the last two games.
Free-throw shooting 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. They currently rank No. 1 in the Big Ten and nationally in free throws made per game (23.6) this year. It's a drastic improvement from last season when Minnesota ranked 285th nationally with 11.5 makes on foul shots 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. Getting to the line is obviously a strength for Pitino's teams since they are 7-15 when outshot by their opponent the last two seasons. But the Gophers still came out with the win last week when they were outshot 27-25 at the foul line by the Hawkeyes in their last game.
Time: 7 p.m. CT, Monday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota three-point underdog. Series: Michigan State leads the series 65-57, including the last meeting 70-52 at the Baron in January. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTN2go. Radio: 100.3 KFAN.
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (8-1)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Marcus Carr 6-2 195 Jr. 24.6
G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 Jr. 9.4
G – Both Gach 6-6 185 Jr. 12.3
F – Brandon Johnson 6-8 220 Sr. 8.5
C – Liam Robbins 7-0 235 Jr. 12.6
Key reserves– Eric Curry, F-C, 6-9, Sr., 4.6 ppg; Jamal Mashburn Jr., G, 6-2, Fr., 4.7 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, So., 3.4 ppg; Tre' Williams, G, 6-5, So., 3.4 ppg
Coach: Richard Pitino 153-123 (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 … Sophomore guard Tre' Williams suffered a bruised leg in the win against UMKC. Williams, who turned 20 on Dec. 15, played and finished with six points in 13 minutes in the next game at Illinois … Johnson missed the UMKC game with a left ankle injury, but he returned to have eight points, eight rebounds and two blocks at Illinois off the bench ... The Gophers picked up their first Associated Press top 25 ranking on Monday since the 2017-18 season at No. 21.
NO. 17 MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (6-2, 0-2)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Rocket Watts 6-2 184 So. 10.9
G – Joshua Langford 6-5 200 Sr. 8.1
F – Aaron Henry 6-6 212 Jr. 12.0
F – Thomas Kithier 6-8 225 Jr. 3.3
F – Joey Hauser 6-9 225 Jr. 14.0
Key reserves – Foster Loyer, G, 6-0, Jr., 6.4 ppg; Malik Hall, F, 6-7, So., 6.5 ppg; Gabe Brown, F, 6-8, Jr., 9.5 ppg; Julius Marble II, F, 6-8, So., 4.8 ppg; A.J. Hoggard, G, 6-3, Fr., 2.8 ppg; Marcus Bingham, C, 6-11, Jr., 3.0 ppg.
Coach: Tom Izzo 634-243 (26th season)
Notable: The Spartans dropped their first two games to open Big Ten play for the first time since 2006-07. But Tom Izzo has dominated the Gophers, winning 24 of the last 27 regular season games since 2004-05, including seven straight victories in the regular season. The Spartans, who lost at Northwestern by 14 in their Big Ten opener, returned home to fall 85-76 against Wisconsin, the first loss against the Badgers at the Breslin Center since 2004 ... Winston's old backcourt mate Josh Langford returned after suffering several injury setbacks, but he's averaging just 8.1 points as a senior this season ... Marquette transfer and big man Joey Hauser leads Michigan State with 14 points and 8.6 rebounds this year. Hauser had just four points in a loss at Northwestern, but he bounced back with 27 points on 10-for-11 free throw shooting against the Badgers
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 6-3): Gophers 78, Michigan State 75.