Daniel Oturu could have easily bragged about being among college basketball’s top centers this season, but he played the role of hype man after Gophers teammate Marcus Carr’s 35-point performance in the upset over Ohio State last month.
“For him to play like he did was really special,” Oturu said. “People need to start to take notice.”
You could say the same about Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur, because all three of Minnesota’s sophomore starters are among the Big Ten’s best as league play resumes this week.
Oturu’s dominant inside presence has made him a Big Ten player of the year candidate and legit NBA draft prospect. Back-to-back 30-point games from Carr and Kalscheur in December helped turn the season around for the Gophers (7-5), who have three straight wins going into a big NCAA tournament résumé-building opportunity Thursday at Purdue (8-5) in West Lafayette, Ind.
“Marcus is a really good player,” Richard Pitino said. “Daniel and Gabe had really good experience going to the NCAA tournament last year. Gabe started every single game. Daniel started almost every single game. They understand it — and that experience factor is huge. It gives you confidence.”
Oturu (18.3 ppg), Carr (14.8) and Kalscheur (14.1) are averaging the most points combined of any three teammates in the Big Ten at 47.2 points per game. The next closest are Iowa’s Luke Garza, Joe Wieskamp and C.J. Fredrick, who average 45.6 points combined.
The Hawkeyes blowing out the Gophers by 20 points in a Big Ten opener on Dec. 9 was the wake-up call that Carr and Kalscheur needed in the backcourt. They combined for just two points on 1-for-20 shooting from the field in Iowa City, but they’ve averaged 44 points combined in three games since.
Following Carr’s effort vs. Ohio State, Kalscheur’s 34 points on 7-for-9 shooting from three-point range in an 86-66 win vs. Oklahoma State on Dec. 21 gave the Gophers their first teammates to score 30 or more points in back-to-back games since 2004.
Kalscheur, shooting 12-for-19 from three-point range in the past two games, said the ankle injury to starting guard Payton Willis motivated him to raise his level of play. Willis is expected to miss his third straight game against the Boilermakers.
“I feel like I’m more locked into games,” Kalscheur said. “Not saying that I wasn’t into games before, but I just feel like since Payton’s been out … just [knew] I had to step up.”
Beating Oklahoma State and Ohio State after the Iowa loss gave the Gophers a “taste of what we’re capable of and what we can do this season,” said Carr, a Pittsburgh transfer.
Oturu gave the Gophers their first 20-point, 20-rebound game since 1966 in Saturday’s win vs. Florida International to close out nonconference play. Carr, Kalscheur and Oturu continued to carry the load together by combining for 61 of the team’s 89 points.
“We still have the ultimate confidence in ourselves and with each other,” Carr added. “We’re still looking to go out with that same mentality [going into the Big Ten].”
Upper echelon Big Ten teams Ohio State, Maryland, Michigan State and Michigan are led by upperclassmen.
Gone are Minnesota veterans Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer. So, the Gophers will go as far as their sophomores can lead them in conference play this year.
Another sophomore, forward Jarvis Omersa, is their main spark off bench. They also have been starting freshman guard Tre’ Williams in place of Willis.
“We’re extremely young team with a lot of new faces,” Pitino said. “When you lose an older guy like Payton [and junior big man Eric Curry to a season-ending knee injury], you become drastically younger. It’s pretty cool at times when you have four sophomores on the court and a freshman and they’re winning big games.”